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Duke Ellington on the National Film Registry: Jam Session (1942)

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The Library always announces new additions to the National Film Registry in December, and this year will be no different. The National Film Preservation Board had its annual meeting in October to, among other things, advise Acting Librarian David S. Mao on Registry selections. Once they’re announced, the final 25 selections will bring the total to 675 titles.

We’re expanding the Registry web site with capsule descriptions of each film and, for many of them, an expanded essay. We’re also planning to make more NFR titles available online, especially those that aren’t available commercially. A good place to start is Jam Session, a 1942 Soundie starring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Mark Cantor—a noted jazz-on-film scholar who operates the Celluloid Improvisations Film Archive—wrote an accompanying essay, which we’re pleased to present here along with a digital transfer of a 16mm print in the Walter De Mohrenschildt Collection.


In 1940, anyone in the habit of reading the entertainment “trades” — Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, and the like — would be aware that something very new, very unique, was on the horizon: an audiovisual jukebox, a jukebox with a screen! The vision was quite simple: If people were willing to pay a nickel to hear a current hit recording on a jukebox, then they would be happy to spend a dime to both hear and see a musical performance.

Soundies trade advertisement

Throughout 1940 and 1941, a large number of entrepreneurs attempted to position themselves as the leaders in this new entertainment medium. But when the dust settled by mid-1941, there was a clear winner in the race. The Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, manufacturer of slot machines and other entertainment devices, was producing and selling the projection machine of choice, the fabulous Mills Panoram. The films to be shown in the device, Soundies by name, were distributed by a Mills subsidiary, the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America.

The individual, three-minute films were, over a six-and-a-half year period, produced by close to fifty separate concerns. Only a handful of these production units were directly connected to Mills Novelty Company. Those who purchased a Panoram machines — owners of bars, restaurants, hotels, pool rooms, recreation centers and so forth — received eight musical shorts each week, or nine during the war years, when a propaganda piece was added. There were more than 1,85O shorts released over a period of six years, and Jam Session, featuring Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, was one of the best.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra was not the first black band to appear on the Soundies screen; Count Basie and Lucky Millinder preceded Ellington by a few months. But Duke Ellington and his Orchestra was, without question, the preeminent jazz orchestra of its time and its series of five Soundies are superior in every way. Ellington was not only a superior jazz composer, but he also arranged many of his works as well. His orchestra’s sound was instantly recognizable, and Ellington was able to utilize the individual “voices” of his sidemen to produce music that was distinctive and always swinging. Whether playing for floorshows or dancers, or performing in a concern hall setting, Duke Ellington’s music was the most important to come out of the Swing era, if not all of jazz.

Portrait of Duke Ellington, Howard Theater(?), Washington, D.C., ca. June 1946. Courtesy Prints & Photographs Division.

The visual element of a Soundie ranged from straight, no frills presentations by a band or combo, often with vocalist in hand, to what was called a “song story,” with the lyrics acted out on screen for the viewers. Jam Session falls somewhere in between the two approaches, and here is part of the charm and importance of the film. Yes, we get a story setting: It is a bar in Harlem, signs on the wall proclaiming, “Harlem Cats Eatery,” and “No credits to strangers. Welcome stranger.” And in the bar it just so happens that we are going to see and hear a jam session featuring members of the Ellington band.

While it might not be appropriate to assign an “auteur” status to any Soundie director, surely Josef Berne, who is responsible for all five Ellington Panoram shorts, was a very competent filmmaker. He was one of the most prolific Soundie directors, and he put his stamp on an astonishing 289 films. Earlier he had made shorts for MGM, and in 1942 Berne would direct a 15 minutes short subject, again for MGM, that would win the Academy Award for Best Live-Action Short. This film, Heavenly Music, may seem like an expanded Soundie, but that did not deter Academy voters from giving it the Oscar. Berne’s five-year association with Soundies would yield many fine, well-focused and entertaining shorts featuring such talent as the Mills Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge, Tex Williams, Sally Rand, Roy Milton, Wingy Manone and Les Paul.

While the entire band is heard on the soundtrack of Jam Session, only the soloists can be seen screen. This brings up a peculiar aspect of the production of not only Soundies, but also most filmed musical numbers during this period. The Ellington band recorded the soundtracks for five Soundies at the Columbia Records studios in Los Angeles (Studio B, 6624 Romaine Avenue, Los Angeles) the week of November 24, 1941. They returned to another studio, perhaps Fine Arts, sometime later, perhaps only a matter of days, for what was terms “sideline photography” — that is, photography with musicians miming for the cameras to the pre-recorded soundtrack. In the case of this Soundie, the synchronization between sound and action is particularly good, and it would be difficult for the average viewer to notice that none of the musicians was playing “live.”

The title Jam Session was chosen by someone in the Soundies organization, describing as it does the action of the short. But the composition is actually an Ellington standard titled “C Jam Blues.” The Soundie version, produced ca. November-December 1941, actually falls in-between the initial recording by a Barney Bigard small group drawn from the Ellington band (September 29, 1941, with the recording released as “C Blues”), and the recording by the full band (January 21, 1942). The tune remained a part of the band’s “working book” until Ellington’s death, and was even performed with lyrics added by Bill Katts, Bob Thiele and Ruth Roberts, retitled Duke’s Place.

Copyright submission for Jam Session

The composition is a 12 bar blues, but make no mistake: This is not the classic Mississippi Delta blues, but rather hot jazz, straight from Harlem, played in a blues form. The initial small group recording is a delight, but the later versions are even better, in part because a four bar break has been added before each solo chorus. This break adds to the tension of the solo, providing an introduction to each musician’s individual sound, with the blues chorus that follows a musical catharsis of sorts.

As mentioned above, only the soloists are seen on screen, some already seated at the bar or in booths, others arriving through a door, and down the stairs. To add to our delight, and in something rather rare for a Soundies short, most of the musicians are identified by name on screen: Duke Ellington (piano), Ray Nance (violin), Rex Stewart (trumpet), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet) and Sonny Greer (drums). The only member who appears anonymously is the string bassist, the very talented and underrated Junior Raglin.


One might quibble about the setting, and the stereotyping of jazz as music played in bars and other seedy locations. But the truth of the matter is that jazz was indeed played in bars and nightclubs, as well as in theaters and concert halls. (This Soundie is followed by a 1943 RKO short called Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in which Ellington indeed appears on a concert stage.) In any case, the bar here is clean and perhaps antiseptic, providing the setting for some stunning music. Comparison to the band’s recording of the tune for RCA Victor is similar to hearing an alternate takes of a recording: the structure is the same, but the solo work, energy level and nuances of interpretation, make this unique and special.

Jam Session is a superior Soundie in all regards, the setting appropriate for the music, the “backstory” of the film fascinating and of historical important. The significance of this film is clear, and its placement on the National Film Registry well warranted!

 Jam Session (Soundies Distributing Corporation of America, 1942)


Comments (2)

  1. Congratulations ! And thank you for the very knowledgeable and scholarly introduction above. Time, that the US of A acknowledges its greatest 20th century artist.
    Remember, when the Pulitzer Prize was denied him in the 60’ies and he drily commented: “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young”.
    Now 50 years later his name is a symbol of the best of America.
    Best greetings from a Danish fan for more than 65 years (I went to my first Ellington-concert in Aarhus, Denmark, in june 1950).

  2. Very nice film and very nice commentary from Mark Cantor! Many thanks from an appreciative fan.

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