The Hipster Odysseus
March 18, 2016 4:23 p.m. ET
One hundred years ago, the corner of Division Street and Western Avenue in Chicago was home to a less delicate sort of hipster than hangs out there today. Among the gangsters, bootleggers and pool sharks was Milton Mezzrow, a Jewish kid from a good family who was drawn to the fast life, got caught with a stolen car, and at the age of 15 was sent to Pontiac Reformatory in Joliet, where he fell in love with the blues. “Night after night we’d lie on the corn-husk mattresses in our cells, listening to the blues drifting over from the Negro side of the block,” he later recalled. After Pontiac, he discovered New Orleans jazz and learned enough saxophone and clarinet to chart a rough and riotous course through several decades of American music history.
Listen Hard Now Mezz Mezzrow playing the clarinet in Paris ca. 1950. Photo: Getty Images
“Mezz” Mezzrow (1889-1972) eventually played alongside Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, became a pot dealer in Harlem and served as a self-proclaimed “link” between black and white culture. He also landed back in prison, in gangster-run clubs, in an opium den and finally, in his mid-40s, in a Greenwich Village bar, where he met Bernard Wolfe, a young, Yale-educated writer who was friends with Henry Miller and had read French novelists like André Gide and Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Over the course of a couple years, they turned the story of Mezzrow’s life into the American counter-culture classic “Really the Blues,” a stylized oral history that anticipates the Beat novel, first published in 1946 and now reissued by New York Review Books.
Really the Blues
By Mezz Mezzrow & Bernard Wolfe
New York Review, 435 pages, $17.95
Like many firsthand accounts of America’s underbelly (think Charles Bukowski, the Beats), “Really the Blues” is part quixotic adventure novel, part inside-scoop. “Listen hard, now,” Mezzrow says early on. “This is a story that happened in the U.S. of A. I was born on a windy night in 1899, along with the Twentieth Century”—as if his life were a modern epic. What follows, though nominally autobiography, is presented in such a talky, jive-inflected ramble as to seem not written at all but spoken by “the Mezz” over one long, smoky night in an after-hours bar. It’s a wonderful effect, more novelistic than biographical, and succeeds because Mezzrow’s voice is funny, impulsive, full of itself and often spectacularly scatological. “I needed a brush with the law just then like a toad needs sidepockets,” runs one of his many one-liners. “The beef trust was out in full force—,” he says of a brothel, “these landladies were all shaped up like barrels, wherever there wasn’t a crease in their meat there was a dimple.”
Mezzrow actually did live an extraordinary life and was often at (or near) the center of jazz history, and certainly episodes in the book are of historical relevance; but it’s his voice, combined with a gift for storytelling, that makes “Really the Blues” as lively and compelling in its mundane episodes as in its historically notable ones. Whether he is avoiding the advances of Al Capone’s girlfriend:
“‘Hey look, baby,’ I said, ’I know you’re Capone’s old lady—uh, uh, I ain’t coming on this tab.’ She pouted, kind of brought down because I didn’t rush off and shoot Scarface full of holes so I could move in.”
Or groaning about prison uniforms:
“the drapes they handed me a jungle bum wouldn’t wear on weekdays. Long underwear that looked like the housing project of some gophers on a fresh-air kick, about ten sizes too big and five quarters of creosote too funky. A blue-and-white striped rag that they called a shirt, faded and torn and built for a humpy giant to begin with.”
Listening to “the Mezz” is tremendous fun. No wonder “Really the Blues” excited the Beat writers ( Allen Ginsberg claimed to have read it “at the counter of the Columbia U Bookstore in [the] mid-forties”). Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” shares not only its jazz-pumped prose but also its vision of life as a quest: for Kerouac, to find Dean Moriarty’s father and a hidden, truer America; for Mezzrow, to discover in himself the kernel of purity needed to create “real” jazz, the kind of purity innate to “the Race” (as he says) but nearly unreachable by white musicians, who are too caught up in technique and blinded by commerce. Mezzrow’s lifelong desire to shed his whiteness and become a black man (he even managed to get assigned to the “colored block” at Riker’s Island) led to real accomplishments, such as his creation of the first truly mixed-race jazz group. In “Really the Blues,” it also leads him into long diatribes on race that even in the 1940s could seem myopic, a “white man’s concept of the Negro,” as a reviewer wrote at the time.
In fact, if you approach “Really the Blues” as a cultural history—as critic Ben Ratliffdoes in this new edition’s introduction—it comes up short, not only because Mezzrow reaches too far in fashioning himself, but also because the book is really a quest novel masquerading as a history rather than the other way around.
Mezzrow name-drops his share of book learning—“That T.S. Eliot describes us all as hollow men, stuffed with straw. To the colored boys, we were all stuffed with pages from Webster’s Dictionary”—but the book’s true literary inheritance is its style, which at times reaches such novelistic heights as to remind us of the hidden co-author, Bernard Wolfe, the Yale grad hard at work in the background: “Humiliation, despair; trapped, no way out. Pimp’s a hard man, threatens her, she’s scared to leave. Oh, life isn’t worth living, what’s she to do? She’s so miserable, misses the baby. . .” Wolfe was an accomplished novelist in his own right (“The Great Prince Died,” “Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer”). In “Really the Blues,” he collaborated with Milton Mezzrow to create one of the great, flawed, jubilant, jive-talking characters of American literature.
—Mr. Riker teaches in the English Department at Washington University in St. Louis.