The Man Who Hipped The World
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
Back in 1979 I discovered a book that I’ve read once a year ever since. It’s every musician’s story and one of the great works of American literature.
I stole my original copy from James Madison University, it was on the “nuke” shelf; apparently on it’s second visit to the dump, on the inside cover the following was stamped:
“Eastern Mennonite College: Discard”
I should have known…
Really The Blues
By Milton Mezzrow
Really the Blues, read at the counter of the counter of the Columbia U. Bookstore in mid-forties, was for me the first signal into white culture of the underground black, hip culture that preexisted before my own generation.” – Allen Ginsberg
Milton Mezzrow was a nice Jewish boy born in Chicago at the turn of the century.
His early years were a series of “Our Gang” episodes. Arrested in his late teens for auto theft, he was sent to the Pontiac Reformatory. While in the reformatory he heard music that turned his world upside down.
Ask any musician and they’ll tell you of a similar experience; each of us had one song or artist that changed everything. In my case it was “Shake Your Money Maker” on the first Paul Butterfield album. For the young Mr. Mezzrow it was a sound that came from the city of New Orleans. In later years, it would be known as Dixieland or Trad, but to the young Mezzrow it would forever be the only true, authentic “jazz.” He picked up a clarinet and began to practice daily. Upon his release from reform school he befriended drummer Davey Tough and a group of other young white musicians obsessed with this music played by southern blacks.
Fortunately for the gang, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and their friends brought jazz music to Chicago in the early twenties, where young white players were waiting with open hearts and open ears.
At first it was just about the music, but before long, Mezzrow was spending more time among the black musicians and turning his back on the customs and restrictions of white society.
Mezzrow’s view on the twenties is one not often expressed. For him, the good times were mixed with the reality of trying to find enough gigs to survive. He describes in vivid and frightening detail his early experiences playing Al Capone’s roadhouses. The gangsters he describes were neither “cool” nor “hip” they were mean, psychotic (Legs Diamond) thugs that enjoyed killing and maiming for even the slightest excuse.
Somewhere in his early twenties, he made friends with a group of Mexicans who introduced him to marijuana. Marijuana would bring about the second big change in his life.
Mezzrow credits Cannibas Sativa with changing his world view. Unlike alcohol, weed did not cause one to become violent or mean, and unlike the opiates, with which it was classified, there was no evidence of addiction.
In the early thirties, along with Armstrong and the other New Orleans players, he moved to New York City.
Upon moving to New York, Milton took a final, dramatic step. With natural curls and a tan complexion making it believable, Mezzrow now listed his race as “Negro.”
Although he never lacked for enthusiasm, his talents as a musician were only slightly above average. Unfortunately for him, his contemporaries were some of the legendary players in Jazz. Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong were competing for the same limited number of gigs in a small market.
Needing a supplementary source of income, Mezzrow called up some old friends. Milton Mezzrow introduced marijuana to Harlem.
Over the years there have been numerous conflicting opinions on his contributions to the music world, but there is general agreement that he was indeed responsible for introducing high quality reefer to New York City.
In what may be one of the earliest examples of branding, his name became synonymous with his product. Good weed was often known as “The Mezz” or “Mezzroll.”
He himself became known as “Papa Mezz,” “Mezzroll,” “He Who Diggeth the Digger, and…
“The Man Who Hipped Harlem.”
From this point on, his story becomes more than just a personal memoir. It is an exciting first-person account of day-to-day life during the Harlem Renaisance.
It’s the story of a society within a society, complete with its own rules, leaders, and even language. Mezzrow takes to the street corner and the legendary “Tree Of Life” and proceeds to transcribe a typical conversation between Harlem hipsters. It’s more than just a string of expressions and slang; it’s an entirely different language, and a beautiful one at that. Fortunately for us, there’s a glossary (check it out on Amazon) at the end of the book, making translation possible.
He also had his share of the bad times. He wound up back in prison, fell in with the wrong crowd, copped a gorilla opium habit, and lost his wife.
He neither glorifies nor sugar coats prison, his addiction, and his eventual spiritual awakening. The same language that brought Harlem to life, paints a stark picture of months and years floating by in an opiated haze, and the horrors of a cold turkey kick. His description of prison life, however, takes a sharp turn midway thru, setting the stage for profound changes that proved to be a kind of redemption.
Mezzrow spent his life playing and championing the music that he loved.
Really the Blues, written in 1946 (at the age of 46), winds up in Paris where Mezzrow spent his last years, leaving for the pearly gates in 1972.
At the end of the book, in the appendices, he provides an almost scholarly analysis of old-school jazz, followed by some incredible profound insights on blacks, whites, and American culture.
Papa Mezz’s musical tastes may ruffle a few feathers; he has very little affection for bebop and later forms of jazz, but his love of the traditional does include (what we now refer to as) the blues. He worships Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and savages those whom the musical establishment of his day often attempted to portray as “authentic” jazz and blues artists.
Every musician should read this book.
After all, Mezzrow’s story is our story, told in language we understand.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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