Wednesday, November 24, 2010
"Really the Blues," by Mezz Mezzrow
"Really The Blues" demonstrates how it's good to have something to do.
Talk about alternative paths. Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow blazed one through the jungle of conformity, "went black," lost time to drugs, fomented early 20th century jazz, became too familiar with jail, but remained focused on a vision.
Were it not for the journey New Orleans jazz made up the Mississippi to Chicago in the early paces of the 20th century, Milton Mezzrow would have had, like all of us, a story to tell, but no audience.
His story stands on three sturdy and utterly novel legs.
One was a total adhesion to all things African-American, or Negro, as they said in his day. A second was the aforementioned passion for a very specific jazz that came up out of the Crescent City and got amplified by his friend, Louis "Pops" Armstrong. The third was a commitment to the manifold virtues of marijuana or, as he alternately referred to it: golden leaf, gauge, muta, and -- highwayscribery's favorite -- muggles.
Raised on Chicago's south side, "Mezz" landed in jail early. More stupid than criminal, his interest in the clarinet and saxophone kept the young Jewish jailbird on the up-and-up; focused and ennobled his misbegotten adventures.
His story really takes form upon moving to New York with Gene Krupa and a tiara of future jazz-era jewels in an attempt at storming the music industry's gates with their hot new toy.
Settling in Harlem, establishing his base at the intersection of 133rd Street and Seventh Ave., Mezzrow became the "white mayor," the "link between the races," ambassador for muggles, purveyor and recorder of a unique argot -- the poetry of the proletariat -- "jive."
The Mezz was an influential fellow in his moment and this jive the dominant tongue at the intersection of Cool Street and Downbeat Avenue.
"Really the Blues," came out when Jack Kerouac was digging the music Mezz expounds upon, and it's no fantasy to surmise that the beat poet's jazz-infused prose are not heavily influenced by this book and the way it is told.
We're suggesting, without a hint of accusation, that Kerouac borrowed heavily from, or at least riffed on, the Mezzrow's mostly forgotten text. It's called research and is born of the writer's anthropological duty.
Colorful or operatic, Mezzrow's life was rarely easy, but he kept blowing horns, in and out of jail, searching for a soul-state firmly rooted in his beloved New Orleans jazz.
An uncompromising commitment to the style finally bore fruit in his savoring of Sidney Bechet's "Blues of Bechet" and "The Sheik of Araby."
He describes the epiphany thusly:
"It meant: Life gets neurotic and bestial when people can't be at peace with each other, say amen to each other, chime in with each other's feeling and personality; and if discord is going to rule the world, with each guy at the next guy's throat, all harmony gone -- why, the only thing for a man to do, if he wants to survive, if he won't get evil like all the other beasts in the jungle, is to make that harmony inside himself, be at peace with himself, unify his own insides while the snarling world gets pulverized."
The next natural and positive step for Mezzrow was to team-up with Bechet.
In a publication called "The Record Changer," reviewer Ernest Bornemen said that these tracks, "went back beyond Louis and beyond Bunk Johnson and beyond Buddy Bolden, to the very roots of music, to the cane and the rice and the indigo and the worksongs and the slave ships and the dance music of the inland Ashanti and the canoe songs of the Wolof and Mandingo along the Senegal River."
The review represented Mezz's crowning moment. Not as a professional poo-bah, but as proof that he had reached an important milestone in his musically inspired drive for spiritual wholeness.
Mezzrow closes his tale by relating how writer Bernard Wolfe convinced him to cough-up an autobiography. Wolfe's words best describe what's on tap in "Really the Blues."
"Not very many people have gotten a good look at their country from that bottom-of-the-pit angle before, seen the slimy underside of the rock. It's a chunk of Americana, as they say, and should get written. It's a real American success story, upside down: Horatio Alger standing on his head.
"In a real sense, Mezz, your story is the plight of the creative artist in the USA. -- to borrow a phrase from Henry Miller...It's the odyssey of an individualist, through a land where the population is manufactured by the system of interchangeable parts. It's the saga of a guy who wanted to make friends, in a jungle where everybody was too busy making money and dodging his own shadow."
Mission accomplished, Milton.