REALLY THE BLUES
and Bernard Wolfe
“I was cut out to be a jazzman the way the righteous are chosen for the church.”
When he was arrested in 1940, Mezz Mezzrow insisted on being held in the black section of a New York prison. “I’m coloured, even if I don’t look it”, he told the warden, who accepted this claim and moved him in with the black prisoners.
“For me the first signal into white culture of the underground,
hip black culture.”
Mezz Mezzrow was a white Jewish boy who learnt how to play saxophone while he was in reformatory school. He was one of the first white musicians to dedicate himself to jazz (as a saxophonist, a manager for Louis Armstrong, owning his own record label and he was also one of jazz’s most famous drug dealers) and crossed the racial divide in 1920’s America to make himself part of black culture.
In Really the Blues he describes the underworld of 1920’s and 30’s America, from New York to Chicago and New Orleans. Mezzrow captures the atmosphere of the brothels, bars and honky-tonks, as well as the oversized personalities of those musicians he played with; from Bessie Smith and Sidney Bechet to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. Written in the slang of the jazz underground, Mezzrow introduced the world to words such as “hipster”, “groovy” and “high”.
It is one of the great music autobiographies (and its influence has been felt for decades, Tom Waits still credits it as a major influence on his own life and work). Mezz Mezzrow was the literary pioneer for the Beats, hippies and every writer since who has written about the music that has moved their generation to rebellion or joy.
Mezz Mezzrow was born in 1899, and organised (and played in) some of the most famous recording sessions of the 1930’s and 40’s. He was jailed in 1940 for possession of marijuana and died in 1972.
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