Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow grew up in a middle-class Jewish-American family in Chicago. A rebellious adolescent, he went to reform school at sixteen for car theft. There, in 1916, he heard African-American music for the first time. The singing of African-American inmates, he recalled in his autobiography Really the Blues, “hit me like a millennium would hit a philosopher.” Released from reform school, he began learning to play jazz clarinet by listening to the earliest recordings of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Joe “King” Oliver.
A mediocre musician at best Mezzrow became better-known for his drug-dealing than his music. In his time, he was so well-known in the jazz community for selling marijuana that “Mezz” became slang for marijuana, a reference used in the Stuff Smith song, “If You’re a Viper”. He was also known as the “Muggles King,” the word “muggles” being slang for marijuana at that time; the title of the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording “Muggles” refers to this. Armstrong was one of his biggest customers.
“Milton Mezzrow was, is and shall always be the single most important figure in the history of marijuana in America. Like Leary, the Mezz turned on a new generation to a new drug…Mezzrow was 1) the first white Negro, 2) the Johnny Appleseed of weed, 3) the author of a great American autobiography, Really the Blues, the finest eyewitness account of American counterculture ever published. The book is, likewise, the master-piece of the counterculture’s most characteristics literary medium: the slang-laced, jazz-enrhythmed, long-breathed and rhapsodic street rap and rave-up” “He was listed as Negro on his draft card” in World War II.
Record producer Al Rose was critical of Mezzrow’s musicianship, saying that in his opinion “he wasn’t a very good clarinetist,” but praised him for a willingness to help other musicians in need, praising “his generosity and his total devotion to the music we call jazz.”
For Mezzrow, jazz was always about rebellion, a rejection of middle class respectability those “chumps who have to rise and shine each morning, slaves to the alarm clock.” A creative musician, he wrote, “was an anarchist with a horn.” But paradoxically, for black Americans musicianship was as often a badge of middle class success and respectability.
In his autobiography, Mezzrow vividly recalled another white Jazz musician, Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. (See and earlier InOneEar blog post.) In popular culture Beiderbecke, the “young man with a horn,” symbolized “jazz age” rebellion and the romantic self destruction of youth in the twenties. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Beiderbecke grew up hearing the music of riverboat bands that came up the Mississippi from the deep South. He showed an early genius for the coronet. He also showed an early and intense fondness for whiskey, a fondness that killed him in 1932, at age 28. Widely regarded as the best white jazz musician of his time, Beiderbecke spent much of the twenties in Paul Whiteman’s big band. This three hundred pound White man, called “the king of jazz” in the popular press, offered what now sounds like a pallid, slick and bland version of jazz in his all-white orchestras. Beiderbecke’s story was made into a movie in 1950, Young Man with a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas.
Like Mezzrow, Beiderbecke spent his musical life in imitation of the sounds he heard from African Americans. He detested the segregation that prevented black and white musicians from recording together, but profited from it his entire career. Beiderbecke’s 1928 recording Sorry, shows the sound that made him famous. Compare it to another 1928 recording, Louis Armstrong’s Weather Bird.
Mezzrow praised and admired the African-American style. In his autobiography Really the Blues, Mezzrow writes that from the moment he heard jazz he “was going to be a Negro musician, hipping [teaching] the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.” He felt he was a symbol” and that he felt a kinship with him as “a Jewish man who embraced African-American culture and art form.”
Mezzrow married a black woman, Mae (also known as Johnnie Mae), moved to Harlem, New York, and declared himself a “voluntary Negro.” He believed that “he had definitely ‘crossed the line’ that divided white and black identities”. In 1940 he was caught by the police to be in possession of sixty joints trying to enter a jazz club at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with intent to distribute. When he was sent to jail, he insisted to the guards that he was black and was transferred to the segregated prison’s black section. He wrote (in Really the Blues):
“Just as we were having our pictures taken for the rogues’ gallery, along came Mr. Slattery the deputy and I nailed him and began to talk fast. ‘Mr. Slattery,’ I said, ‘I’m colored, even if I don’t look it, and I don’t think I’d get along in the white blocks, and besides, there might be some friends of mine in Block Six and they’d keep me out of trouble’. Mr. Slattery jumped back, astounded, and studied my features real hard. He seemed a little relieved when he saw my nappy head. ‘I guess we can arrange that,’ he said. ‘Well, well, so you’re Mezzrow. I readnabout you in the papers long ago and I’ve been wondering when you’d get here. We need a good leader for our band and I think you’re just the man for the job’. He slipped me a card with ‘Block Six’ written on it. I felt like I’d got a reprieve.”