Mezz Mezzrow was a white Jewish boy who learnt how to play saxophone while he was in reformatory school. He was one of the first white musicians to dedicate himself to jazz (as a saxophonist, a manager for Louis Armstrong, owning his own record label and he was also one of jazz’s most famous drug dealers) and crossed the racial divide in 1920’s America to make himself part of black culture.
In Really the Blues he describes the underworld of 1920’s and 30’s America, from New York to Chicago and New Orleans. Mezzrow captures the atmosphere of the brothels, bars and honky-tonks, as well as the oversized personalities of those musicians he played with; from Bessie Smith and Sidney Bechet to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. Written in the slang of the jazz underground, Mezzrow introduced the world to words such as “hipster”, “groovy” and “high”.
It is one of the great music autobiographies (and its influence has been felt for decades, Tom Waits still credits it as a major influence on his own life and work). Mezz Mezzrow was the literary pioneer for the Beats, hippies and every writer since who has written about the music that has moved their generation to rebellion or joy.
“Its hard-boiled poetry, its tales of woe and wonder, told in the racy vernacular of a hipster’s tongue. Imagine Dylan’s Chronicles, written by Damon Runyon, and you’ll get an idea of this book’s conversational intimacy… More than anything, though, this book is an extended celebration of the redemptive power of the jazz that inspired it.”
“Mind-blowing… To say that he lived in colourful times (no pun intended) is an understatement, and, written as it is in jazz slang… it bustles along with an energy that makes it hard to put down… For a slice of alternative US pre-war culture, it’s hard to beat.”
“One of the key autobiographies in popular music… A first hand account of the jazz/blues world of the day the street life, blues roadhouses, brothels, bars and the honky tonks as well as his own view of some of the great musical personalities of the day… An eye witness account of the birth of jazz/blues.”
Shades of Blue