Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.
Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.Gjon Mili—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.
Pearl Primus performs to "Honeysuckle Rose" as played by an all-star group consisting of Teddy Wilson (piano), Lou McGarity (trombone), Sidney Catlett (drums), Bobby Hackett (trumpet) and John Simons (bass).
Billie Holiday sings her standard, "Fine and Mellow," accompanied by James P. Johnson on piano and others, New York, 1943.
Duke Ellington at the piano as Dizzy Gillespie (seated behind Ellington) and others swing, 1943.
Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, 1943.
Edward Kennedy ('Duke') Ellington, who leads what is unquestionably the world's most exciting dance band, plays 'Don't Get Around Much Any More,' his own current best-selling composition.
Duke Ellington, 1943.
Vocalist Lee Wiley sings, accompanied by her husband, pianist Jess Stacy, with Eddie Condon on guitar, Sid Weiss on bass and the great Cozy Cole on drums, 1943.
Vocalist Lee Wiley sings, accompanied by her husband, pianist Jess Stacy, with Eddie Condon on guitar, Sid Weiss on bass and the great Cozy Cole on drums, 1943.
Lee Wiley, 1943.
Conde Nast president Iva Patcevitch (in striped suit), Vogue editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase (far right, in hat) and other media types hang out at Gjon Mili's studio during a jam session, 1943.
Unidentified jazz musicians, New York, 1943.
Josh White sings and plays on guitar his 'Hard Time Blues.'
J.C. Heard Orchestra, 1943.
Duke Ellington and friends, 1943.
Jazz Jam Sessions, 1943
Franz Jackson on saxophone, accompanied by James P. Johnson at piano, Wilbur De Paris on trombone, Irving Fazola (fifth from left) on clarinet, Al Mott on bass and Cozy Cole on drums.
Gene Krupa.
Eddie Heywood's hands, 1943.
An unidentified bass player's fingers, 1943.
Count Basie, Lester Young, and other jazz greats at Gjon Mili's Studio in New York, 1943.
James P. Johnson (piano) and friends, 1943.
Jazz jam session, including Lester Young (standing, in hat) on saxophone and Count Basie at the piano, 1943.
James P. Johnson, 1943.
Cozy Cole on drums, Al Mott on bass and Irving Fazola, taking a break from his clarinet, 1943.
The one and only Roy Eldridge plays trumpet during drummer Gene Krupa's jam session at Gjon Mili's studio, 1940s.
Mary Lou Williams (who arranged for Ellington's band) jams in Gjon Mili's studio, New York, 1943.
Gjon Mili's cat Blackie steps gingerly among empty glasses left on top of the piano after an all-night jam session at his (Mili's, not the cat's) studio, 1942.
The next morning, Gjon Mili's studio was littered with cigaret stubs, broken glasses, spilled liquor. Many jazz musicians eat scrambled eggs and benzedrine for breakfast.
Duke Ellington, New York, 1943.
Gjon Mili—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Giants at Play: LIFE With Jazz Legends

Feb 12, 2012

LIFE photographer Gjon Mili (who also directed the classic 1944 short film, Jammin' the Blues) often hosted jam sessions at his photography studio in New York during the 1940s. The pictures in this gallery testify to the talent on hand — both musical and photographic—at those all-night parties. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole, Gene Krupa . . . like the jam sessions themselves, the names of the greats who played at Mili's studio go on and on and on.

Born in Albania, raised in Romania, Mili emigrated to America to study electrical engineering at M.I.T. Inspired, in 1937, by M.I.T.'s Harold Edgerton's development of the stroboscopic light, Mili went on to experiment with strobes, film speeds, unusual compositions and subjects—in short, he applied his prodigious technical prowess and dedicated his artist's eye to new ways of seeing.

Time, he realized, "could truly be made to stand still. Texture could be retained despite sudden violent movement." These insights, combined with his love of jazz, helped him create some of the most intimate, unique portraits of jazz legends ever made by any photographer—all in what LIFE magazine called his "smoky sweaty barn of a studio."

As for the jam sessions themselves, LIFE (helpfully) wrote in its Oct. 11, 1943, issue in which some of these pictures first appeared:

A jam session is an informal gathering of temperamentally congenial jazz musicians who play unrehearsed and unscored music for their own enjoyment. It usually takes place in the early morning hours after the participants have finished their regular evening's work with large bands. . . . It represents the discarding of the shackles imposed by working with a band that plays You'll Never Know and All or Nothing at All in the same unimaginative arrangements night after night. It represents the final freedom of musical expression.

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.

Gjon Mili—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Gjon Mili—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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