Wednesday, 21 August 2013

14. Mezz Mezzrow

(Clarinet, saxophone, Chicago scene character, and Viper King).

Born in 1899, Milton Mesirow was a larger than life character, stories of whose colourful exploits have overshadowed his playing. He’s already been heard on the blog, I think, on some of the recordings by the Austin High Gang.

Extravagant character
 He was a good, though not great, player, but he deserves place in jazz history because of the extravagant way in which he personifies the times. There are two characteristics that are closely linked to jazz musicians in the 20s, and one is smoking marijuana, known by the black New Orleans musicians as “muggles”. Not all did use it – Kid Ory, for example, didn’t – but many did. Louis Armstrong was a life-long advocate of its virtues.

In the 1920s, marijuana was still legal in most US states, though alcohol wasn’t, and Mezzrow remembered he and Armstrong would roll their reefers “right out in the open and light up like you would on a Camel or a Chesterfield”.

Muggles King
 Mezzrow became an ardent devotee of the drug, and earned the nicknames the Viper King and the Muggles King. He soon had a sideline in supplying marijuana to musicians, and became so identified with the drug that his name became slang for it: for many jazz musicians “mezz” overtook “muggles” as their preferred term for marijuana.

The second characteristic of the times was how this generation of white Chicago musicians related to African American culture. Remember that although Jim Crow laws are most identified with the South, the North was not immune to local versions. The Chicago venue licensing authorities and the local musicians’ union shamefully colluded in forbidding black and white musicians to play together. The Chicago Federation of Musicians was itself segregated; black and white musicians had to join different organisations. (See this account of the Seattle AMF.) Nor was the North immune to the general racism we tend to associate with the South.

We have already seen that the musicians themselves got round this by not being paid if they sat in with musicians of different races, by taking part in after hours jam sessions, and by meeting at each others’ houses. (Johnny Dodds’ home was particularly renowned as a party house for musicians of all backgrounds). For this generation of young white Chicago musicians, the older black players were first their heroes, and then their friends. Part of the deal became that if you were a jazz musician, you were anti-racist. It is one of the attributes that sections of civil society, particularly the press, began to hold against white jazz musicians, seeing it as evidence that they were of low morals.

Being black
Mezz Mezzrow went a step further. He began to insist he was actually black. In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was set up, and marijuana was eventually made illegal. Mezz was inevitably eventually arrested for possession with intent to distribute. Sentenced to a term in prison, he insisted – the prison being segregated - that he should be sent to a black wing, claiming he was a light skinned Negro of mixed race background.  Given the "One Drop" tradition, this was not so far fetched as it might seem.

It might seem odd from today's perspective, but he does seem to have been sincere. And remember that as stances of solidarity go, insisting on being treated as black in a racist penal system is no idle boast.

The Mob
 Mezzrow early on got a name for himself as someone who wasn’t afraid of the gangsters that ran the Chicago nightclub scene. Earl Hines remembered a run in Mezz had with Al Capone:

“It seems Al’s youngest brother, Mitzi, went for one of the good-looking entertainers with Mezz’s outfit, and Scarface ordered her fired. Mezz argued back while half a dozen of Al’s henchmen stood around laughing at the nerve of this musician arguing with Mr. Six-Shooter. Finally Al started laughing too and said, ‘The kid’s got plenty of guts’”.(pp130/131, Shapiro and Hentoff).

 You can hear Mezz’s playing as a sideman on a number of Chicago scene recordings, as well as with Bechet and with Fats Waller. But here is one of his own sides as a leader. It’s actually from the 30s, but I think we can let him off with that, after all he argued the toss with Scarface. Would you want to quibble?

Morton and Cook don’t recommend any CDs of Mezz as a front man (although he does feature on CDs by Fats Waller). But his book of memoires, Really the Blues, published in 1946, became something of a cult classic. I haven’t read it, though I have long meant to get a hold of a copy.

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