Book Review: “Really the Blues” — Memorable Tales of Jazz Age Derring-do

For all his memoir’s faults, Mezz Mezzrow’s rambunctious enthusiasm for jazz and the world it shaped and defined keeps the pages turning.

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe. NYRB Classics, 464 pages, $17.95.


By Matt Hanson

Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow began life as a nice middle-class Jewish boy from Chicago growing up in the beginning of the last century. His family was “as respectable as Sunday morning.” Not satisfied with the mundane version of the American dream, he quickly fell in love with the salacious and subversive underworld lure of what was about to be christened the Jazz Age.

Really The Blues, recently reissued by the NYRB in an extensive new edition with several appendices and a glossary of Mezz’s wigged-out hipster lingo, is the popular and raffish memoir the musician narrated to the sociologist Bernard Wolfe in 1946. No less a jazz aficionado than Woody Allen listed it as one of his favorite books. On occasion, Mezz’s anecdotes read like a prose version of Allen’s film Sweet and Lowdown. Though another Allen movie also comes to mind: Mezz spent decades making his living playing on numerous recordings, hustling to make ends meet between gigs, and had the Zelig-like knack to always make the scene, either as observer or participant.

Mezz traded choruses, shared flophouse rooms, guzzled bottles of hooch, and sold sticks of high-quality “muta” in the streets of Chicago, New York, and New Orleans; he jammed with many of the early jazz masters after hours, including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Condon, and the doomed, brilliant Bix Biederbecke.

We’re treated to his rapturous firsthand accounts of listening to Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith, whose records Mezzrow played over and over until he felt he understood the meaning of the blues. Louis Armstrong is given an affectionate and awe-struck treatment; he comes across as an incredibly hard working professional and as an all around stand-up guy.

Mezz’s portrait of the tormented Beiderbecke, like Mezzrow the rebellious product of a middle-class home, is sensitive and lengthy. Through Beiderbecke’s demise, we see the social risks inherent in following the bohemian allure of jazz. There’s a hint of jealousy in Mezz’s description of his friend’s failed ambition to mix the highbrow, respectable world of classical music with his own style. Mezzrow’s snarky appraisal of Beiderbecke’s artistic ambitions — “he never should have washed his socks” — is less than generous on Mezz’s part, especially because Beiderbecke’s talent was clearly larger than his own.

The lost world of the Jazz Age comes alive in these pages, replete with all the Chi-town bounce and streetwise braggadocio that came with the risqué territory. Mezzrow lived large at a time when being a part of jazz culture was the quickest way to get hip to what Edmund Wilson once called “the American Jitters,” a state of mind which Mezzrow describes as “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.”

The racial and political dimensions of this economic free-for-all weren’t lost on Bernard Wolfe, a Yale-educated psychologist who dutifully noted Mezz’s tales of cutting contests, bootlegging, midnight revelry, addiction, and incarceration. Wolfe was a Marxist, a former secretary to Trotsky, and his intent was to use Mezzrow’s life story as a way to examine the various intersections of race and class in American life. What makes Mezz’s approach to race complex is that he so deeply loves the music and reveres the predominantly African-American artists who play it that at times he almost seems to switch races.

After picking up an opium habit and then being nabbed in New Jersey with an overcoat full of illegal substances, Mezz gets slammed with a long stint in federal prison. In order to avoid having some unsavory cellmates, he convinces the prison guard that he’s actually a light-skinned Negro. To his amusement, he is duly moved to the colored section. It’s an odd moment, as is the half-kidding joke Mezz makes later about retiring and looking forward to his race being listed as “Negro” in the Who’s Who social register.

Mezz Mezzrow in his New York office, November 1946. Photo: William P Gottlieb.

Mezz Mezzrow in his New York office, November 1946. Photo: William P Gottlieb/Library of Congress.

On a certain level, it’s fair to accuse Mezz of Mailer-esque White Negro racial fetishizing, but he is also disarmingly candid about how profoundly he wants the musicians he loves to be taken seriously by the mainstream, how annoyed he is that America overlooks its musical geniuses, and how hard he worked to get an integrated band together just to prove the point.

Sadly, Mezz’s story is also a record of a time when, in the eyes of the square world at least, one jazz musician is as suspicious a character as another. Towards the end of his prison sentence, the judge hears of Mezz’s egalitarian work putting together a jailhouse band and says he’d be fine with letting him out, except: “the only trouble is, if I let you go you’ll get right out with all the rest of your people and re-elect Roosevelt.’…It was 1942, going on election time. The whole court kyaw-kyawed, and back to the Island I went.”

As with most tales of male derring-do, particularly about musicians, who are often not prone to expressing themselves in words, it’s best not to take Really The Blues for gospel truth. There are times when Mezz overdoes his bragging about his capacity for drink and drugs, and plays up his picaresque adventures to an eye-rolling incredulity. The jury’s still out on just how talented Mezz really was, though his proximity to genius subtly conflates his (limited?) skills with those of his legendary friends and collaborators.

For all his memoir’s faults, Mezz’s rambunctious enthusiasm for the music and the world it shaped and defined keeps the pages turning. Mezzrow’s love of the music and the ‘bandid’ lifestyle is palpable and infectious, giving his story a novelistic verve. In many ways, Mezz is the Augie March of jazz. Like Augie, Mezz Mezzrow was also an American, Chicago-born, Jewish and, in the words of Bellow’s greatest creation, had a “go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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