It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:
“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”
So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography, Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.
Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.
The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.
And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.
The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written. As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing. If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.
This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it. But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try. It’s a book you won’t forget.
Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues