Mezz Mezzrow - Really The Blues
Originally published in 1946 this book has often been described as one of the key autobiographies in popular music. Mezzrow was a white Jewish boy who learnt to play saxophone in reformatory school and went on to immerse himself in the jazz world of the 1920s and 30s. But does it have any relevance to or resonate with 21st century sensibilities?
First point to note is that Mezzrow was a very interesting character. He was a musician, a manager (Louis Armstrong), owned his own record label and also had a reputation as one of jazz's foremost drug dealers! He also crossed the racial divide in 1920's America to make himself part of black culture. And I mean crossed the divide!
Mezzrow was obsessive in his embrace of what was then a "pariah nether world" and took his passion to extremes. He wasn't the first to adopt the back man's music, slang and style but he was probably the first who, after extended immersion in the black community, genuinely believed he had actually, physically, turned black. When he was arrested in 1940, he insisted on being held in the black section of a New York prison. He claimed that even if he didn't look coloured, he was - the prison wardens believed him and moved him in with the black prisoners.
So Mezzrow is clearly a fascinating character. But what you also get from this book is a first hand account of the jazz / blues world of the day - the street life, blues roadhouses, brothels, bar and the honky tonks as well as his own view of some of the great musical personalities of the day. And as it was to a large degree written in the slang of the jazz underground of the day, it introduced a new audience to what soon became the standard vocabulary of the wider musical world. It's difficult to imagine now, but this is the first time many had come across words such as 'hipster', 'groovy' and 'high'.
The hip slang of the time in which the majority of the book is written can on occasion become a little tiresome, especially for a middle age white man from a Yorkshire steel city who struggles with some of the meaning even now; but it is also part of its charm and on balance would be far more ordinary and conventional without it. In some ways it set the mark for much of the beat generation writing that followed.
As to its current value - it tells us how everything started, an eye witness account of the birth of jazz/blues and its associated culture. It describes a genuinely unique individual (a much overused characterisation) who was at the same time inspired, odd, passionate, misguided and incredibly influential. It is, in the end, simply a very fine autobiography coupled with a genuinely entertaining overview of a musical and cultural time and place that set the context for everything that followed. Definitely worth a punt!