Perhaps the best long-standing editorial note in any print magazine is the one atop the “Night Life” show–listings in the front pages of the New Yorker. “Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives,” it reads. “It’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.” I remember flipping to the page in my high-school library’s copy every week just for the pleasure of imagining what lurked behind the unmarked door of that low-key language, and to bask self-satisfiedly in the cool sophistication of my understanding: of course they lead complicated lives—it’s jazz.
Mezz Mezzrow—jazz-era reed player, drug-dealer, front man, record producer—led such a life, the full range of which this list only begins to hint at. It and all the rest—forty-seven years worth, anyway—is “chronicled” in his 1946 “memoir” Really the Blues (reissued by NYRB in 2016). Quote marks because the events and accounts he relays seem disputable on their face, in fact have been contested by any number of critics, historians, and fellow musicians since; and because the book reads like an improvised amalgam of forms: picaresque, bildungsroman, redemption narrative, reincarnation myth, proto-Beat novel, tall tale. But nowhere does it go “off tangent,” as Mezzrow himself might have dismissively said of someone unable to keep time or keep true to one’s artistic nature. The line is strong, the momentum propulsive and steady, the hip, idiomatic voice consistently fresh. That’s probably thanks in part to the writerly hand of Bernard Wolfe, the midcentury novelist and one-time assistant to the exiled Leon Trotsky, who in sharing an author credit with Mezzrow may also have helped surface the more problematic, as distinct from complicated, aspects of the protagonist’s life and career. Chief among them: Mezzrow’s apparent belief that through his deep immersion in black culture he scrubbed himself of his own whiteness. More on that to come.
The history of jazz, Geoff Dyer has written, has been the history of people picking themselves up off the floor. Mezzrow would do plenty of that over the decades. But it’s not as if he started out from disadvantage: he was born Milton Mesirow in Chicago in 1899 into a middle-class Jewish family “as respectable,” he writes, “as Sunday morning,” with pharmacists and lawyers as uncles. But young Mezz liked the excitement of the street and at sixteen was sent to Pontiac Reformatory for stealing a car. While there he learned saxophone and the language of blues and jazz, but also, and more significantly for the purposes of his own autobiographisizing, what he came to see as the key differences “between the white and Negro races,” a vision which early on he claims to have boiled down to this:
The white man is a spoiled child, and when he gets the blues he goes neurotic. But the Negro never had anything before and never expects anything after, so when he gets the blues he comes out smiling and without any evil feeling… The colored man doesn’t often get sullen and tight-lipped and evil because his philosophy goes deeper and he thinks straight. Maybe he hasn’t got all the hyped-up words and theories to explain how he thinks. That’s all right. He knows.
It’s all in the music, Mezzrow concludes: “You’ll find the answer there, if you know what to look for.” And Mezzrow, by the time he was a teenager, not only believed he knew what to look for, but also that he had unmistakably found it.