Gjon Mili’s Jazz and Blues


Gjon Mili (1904-1984), [Duke Ellington at piano, Dizzy Gillespie (to the left of Ellington) on trumpet, and musicians during a jam session in studio of Life photographer Gjon Mili], 1943 (1999.2005)

Gjon Mili’s studio was transformed into a semblance of a night club for a few late night jam sessions with many extraordinary musicians, including: Sidney Catlett, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young and many more. The listeners (at one jam session: Edna Woolman Chase, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, and Iva Patcevitch, president of Condé Nast) sat around tables, eating, drinking and smoking. An entertainment editor at Life magazine suggested turning Mili’s large and dusty studio into a performance space after attending one of Mili’s parties. As Mili writes:

It was wartime, excited times; the year was 1943. Jazz was in full swing, and what better subject for a story than a gathering of extroverted musicians and a mob of fans. We were to cut recordings to send to the armed forces overseas and shoot a story for Life. And every great in jazzdom who happened to be in town – Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, Jess Stacey, Lee Wiley, Mary Lou Williams, Cozy Cole, and Billie Holiday – turned up. “Gjon Mili, Photographs and Recollections,” p. 168

The photo above, perhaps of the second jam session, didn’t appear in Mili’s “Jam Session” article in Life, October 11, 1943, pp. 117-123. Several women including Billie Holiday, Pearl Primus, Lee Wiley, Mary Lou Williams, also performed.


Life, October 11, 1943, p. 117

Jam Session
Recently such a session took place in the New York studio of Life photographer Gjon Mili. From shortly before 9 p.m. until after 4 a.m. some of the most distinguished talents in jazz performed for an audience which, in the smoky sweaty barn of a studio, derived an alert, fascinated, almost frenzied enjoyment from what it heard.
The Most Exciting Jazzmen in New York Participated in the Session
By 4 a.m. both the audience and the performers at Gjon Mili’s jam session were agreed upon one thing: it had been the greatest jam session ever held in New York. Throughout the evening, many of the most hallowed names in jazz took turns playing. Eddie Condon, a sharp-jawed, quick-talking, wiry little guitarist who has been the moving force behind some of the greatest jazz records ever made, acted as coordinator. He selected the men for the various combinations, suggested tunes, and, moire often than not, stamped the tempo.
Present too was a staff of recording men from the Army. Their job was to record the music on V-Discs which will be sent to U.S, soldiers in foreign theaters. Milton Gabler of Decca Record Co. served as supervisor for the Army. Presently music that was played during the session will serve as a remembrance of something distinctly American to Homesick troops in unfamiliar surroundings. Life, October 11, 1943, p. 119

The Mili photo did appear in Life , December 6, 1968, pp. 100-101, in an article called: “The Cultural Outpouring of the Harlem Renaissance.”


Life, December 6, 1968, pp. 100-101

Tragically, Mili’s studio at 6 East 23rd Street, Algonquin 4-7222, (across the street from the Flatiron Building and the Shake Shack) burned down in the 23rd Street fire of 1966, one of the worst disasters in the history of the New York Fire Department. At around 9:30 PM on October 17, 1966, flammable paint and lacquer, belonging to an art dealer on 22nd street, caught fire in the basement, while the fire was raging, a floor collapsed (because a basement wall was moved leaving the floor above unsupported), and twelve firefighters died. Until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the 23rd Street fire “claimed more firefighters’ lives than any other disaster in the city.” Mili lost his photography equipment and everything else that was in his studio, except for approximately two-thirds of his photographic files which miraculously survived. (Photographs and Recollections, p. 13). Many extraordinary photographers, including Sid Kaplan, have lived and worked on 23rd Street.

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1 Response to Gjon Mili’s Jazz and Blues

  1. Two of my loves, jazz, and Gjon Mili, all in one post…and great research on your part…thank you!

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