Really the Blues - by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe - Published 1946 - A Review by Mark Hirsch
"Music School? Are you kidding? I learned to play the sax in Pontiac Reformatory."
That's the way the first sentence of this wonderful book grabs you and never lets you go. Told entirely in the jazzman's slang of the time, Really the Blues is more than just a tour through the dance halls, tea pads, opium dens and smoky roadhouses of the jazz world. The book smolders with intensity and describes a journey into one's self that takes the reader from the recording studios of Harlem, across the world of music, into the flophouses and whorehouses that featured jazz in the early years, on through jails, prisons and work gangs.
Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow was a white Jewish kid who was born in Chicago in 1899. In his late teens
he discovered the jazz music that was being played around the south side of Chicago. Mezz fell in
love with the sound of early jazz and with the excitement of the music scene. Chicago was
a jazz center then, and Mezzrow heard many of the great pioneers of the music including Freddie
Keppard, Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone and many others. Soon he bought a clarinet and
began trying to play like his heroes.
The club owners who employed Mezzrow were prohibition era gangsters including Al Capone.
Capone once wanted Mezzrow to fire a girl singer who was developing a romantic relationship with
Capone's younger brother. Capone said, "she can't sing anyway." Mezzrow was so upset that he told Capone, "why, you couldn't even tell good whisky if you smelled it and that's your racket, so how do you figure to tell me about music?" Fortunately for Mezz, Al broke into laughter and said "Listen to the Per-fessor," which became the nickname he called him ever after. Capone respected Mezz after that and stopped interfering with his decisions regarding the music.
The lingo alone is worth the price. There is a glossary of jazz slang in the back of the
book. On the cover page, Mezz dedicates his autobiography as follows:
"To all the hipsters, hustlers and fly cats tipping along the Stroll. [Keep scuffling]
To all the cons in all the houses of many slammers, wrastling with chinches. [Short time, boys]
To all the junkies and lushheads in two-bit scratchpads, and the flophouse grads in morgue iceboxes. [R.I.P.]
To the sweet talkers, the gumbeaters, the highjivers, out of the gallion for good and never going to take it low again. [You got to make it, daddy]
To Bessie Smith, Jimmie Noone, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Zutty Singleton, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier. [Grab a taste of millennium, gate]"
Mezzrow's maniacal enthusiasm for early jazz is contagious. Not many people who were actually present at the time considered jazz music to be important enough to write books about it. Part of Mezzrow's purpose is to convince the reader that jazz music is worthy. I found it satisfying to hear
that in slang the word "mezz" has come to mean the best, the tops, supreme. The life and times of
Milton Mezzrow should under no circumstances be left out of the history of jazz as this is surely the best
story that I have read in so long that it defies comparison to anything that I can remember.
If this book was simply a romp through the jazz world, told in the authentic slang of the time, it would
be a wonderful read. But it's way more than that. Mezz's story takes us through his tough times, his
opium addiction and jail sentences. The story of how he overcame his addiction to rise again to the top
ranks of jazz conveys a powerful vital message of unadulterated joy. For years Mezz strove to play the true Storyville jazz idiom and was unable to know the underlying blues deep down that produces the authentic feeling that the best players conveyed through their horns. The day that he broke through the self-imposed barrier and let the true spirit flow through his clarinet is one of the most inspirational passages you'll ever read. That wonderful moment seems to convey the message that runs like a river through the entire book: "Life is good, It's wonderful to be alive." One of the finest things about the book is the fact that Mezz's rebirth took place in the very abyss of death, degeneration and corruption.
Throughout the book, Mezz fights for racial equality. He hangs out with the black musicians and convicts because he finds their attitude more in tune with his own outlook. He comes to despise the commercial, hustling, gangster-ridden white world. He was way ahead of his time. His many attempts to front a truly integrated band in gigs as well as recording studios was met with stiff resistance by the entrenched power brokers of the 20's, 30's and 40's.
The blurb on the back cover of my dog-eared paperback copy of the book says it all:
"Mezz Mezzrow learned to blow Dixieland in Chicago brothels and federal prisons. He spiked beer
for Al Capone, played poker with the Purple Gang, peddled "tea" in Harlem, and got hooked on opium.
He's a white man who crossed the color line to the Negro side. His buddies were Louis Armstrong, Fats
Waller, Frank Teschemacher. The story of his way back from degradation and dope addiction to the top
ranks of jazz is one of the greatest you'll ever read."