Deep in the bowels of my paperback copy of The Penguin Guide to Jazz, there’s a short section on Mezz Mezzrow. At the time my copy was published, only a few recordings of his were still in print: post World War II recordings with Sidney Bechet, some pre-war sides, and a session from the 50s. By any definition, that’s a pretty slim legacy. So why did the New York Review of Books re-publish his memoir Really the Blues earlier this year? Who exactly was Mezz Mezzrow?
Mezz was many things, sometimes more than one at once. He was Louis Armstrong’s manager and played on some seminal early jazz recordings. He was a jailbird, an opium addict and “the link between the races” in Harlem, not to mention one of the most famous drug dealers of his time. He was friends with Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie and the influential French jazz critic Hugues Panassié. He was a musician who played clarinet and saxophone, with a little piano on the side. In short, he was a devoted lover of all things jazz and someone who wasn’t above colouring up his backstory.
His memoir Really the Blues is a wild ride through the formative years of jazz, starting with his upbringing in Chicago, time in a youth prison and working his way up as a musician through years of addiction and imprisonment and ultimately leading one of the first racially-mixed groups in New York in the late 40s His memoir shows a wild, exciting life and who knows, parts of it may even be true.
Born in Chicago to a middle-class family, Mezzrow fell early into a life of crime, hanging out on the streets and wrecking havoc with some other kids. At 15 he was sent to prison for stealing car. That same year, he discovered jazz, when he learned to play the sax and piccolo in the jail’s band. Soon after his release, he was hanging out in pool rooms, running with gangsters (Al Capone has a brief cameo) and working as a musician, playing nightclubs all night and hovering over the latest jazz records during the day. It was while working at a club that he discovered marijuana, which profoundly impacted his life and approach to music:
“The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head, but I couldn’t hear much of the band in back of me, although I knew they were there… I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into my phrases – I was really coming on. All the notes came easing out of my horn like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the ball, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way…” (pg 76-77)
Although he includes a weird, obviously ghostwritten disclaimer against using pot, the drug would hold a special place in his life. In time, he’d become known as one of the biggest dealers in New York City, selling the stuff to all kinds of people – especially Louis Armstrong, who briefly took him on as his manager. It’d also lead to his struggle as an opium addict and a late jail sentence, where he passed himself off as black to live in their wing of a racially segregated prison.
Although Mezzrow pretended to identify as black in jail (and, later in life, in public), as jazz critic Ben Ratliff writes in his introduction to this book, Mezzrow’s status in the community hinged on him being white: as much as Mezzrow thought of himself as black (like, as noted, while he was in prison), he was known as the link: he was around that crowd, but he was never of it, so to speak, which gave him an unique vantage point at the time. And as much as he associated with people like Armstong, Basie or others, posterity sees him as an outsider. To go back to the Penguin guide, he’s described as a polarizing figure: some call him overrated and simplistic, others think his soloing was pretty good during a blind test.
But maybe focusing on the music and not the book is the wrong way to look at Mezzrow, even though was ultimately a musician. Although he couldn’t have known it, he was there right at the beginning of a huge sea change in North American music: jazz and blues was growing and becoming mainstream; within a few years they’d mutate and shift into rock and R&B and soon after that, funk, disco and dance music. There’s a steady link back to the past in music today and Mezzrow’s book takes you back, almost right to the big bang, as it were, when legends like Capone or Armstrong walked the Earth.
But more to the point, his book is also flat-out entertaining. In here, Mezzrow makes wild claims about his life: how he invented the phrase “jam session” or got lippy with Mitzi Capone, Al’s younger and trigger-happy brother, and lived to tell about it. He routinely references classical composers like Claude Debussy or Gustav Holst, and authors like Thomas de Quincey or Friedrich Nietzsche, while simultaneously showing a complete lack of interest in either classical music or literature. There’s stories about mob murders, barnstorming gigs in the Colorado mountains and watching Armstrong sweat, emote and bleed on stage, a master musician holding the crowd in the palm of his hand.
At times, it all begs the question: how much of this is the work of Mezzrow and how much comes from co-writer Bernard Wolfe. Chances are a lot of what’s here is at best exaggerated. But that’s almost beside the point: it’s a fun tale and well told at that, half-written in a slang that’s so dated it’s become charming (the chapter written as a running dialogue of Mezzrow working on a street corner is something else).
And throughout, on nearly every page, is his passion for jazz music. Mezzrow explains why jazz means so much to him, lyrics and performers that stuck with him and, if nothing else, a genuine love for jazz. Read it and see if you don’t go look up old songs you’d never known existed, performers who died before you were born and a world of a music that lives in his pages.