Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Really the Blues - Mezz Mezzrow (1946)

If you get the chance and you either have or have not read Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow with Bernard Wolfe, pick it up! Mezzrow, in his life-affirming story, is a man who followed his passions no matter what. While the title may confuse, the book is not about the country blues or what you may consider blues. Born in 1900, Mezz Mezzrow was a white Chicago musician, who plays New Orleans-style jazz, which includes some blues songs. He discusses how white musicians were “out of the gallion” when it came to playing the blues, but it is of no great consequence to him.

He runs around with--and plays with and even mentors—several of great musicians. He performs in speakeasies for gangsters, and he immerses himself in underground African American culture. Along the way he almost single-handedly turns Americans on to cannabis, which remained legal in the states. Speaking in the pre-Beatnik slang of the day, this book marked the beginning of counterculture in American literature. Some examples of slang from the 20s and 30s, were terms like 'wig-trig': idea; 'tall': intoxicated on marijuana; 'knock a fade': go away, leave; and the 'Head Knock': God.

In the Introduction to the book, Ben Ratliff takes some air out of the image that Mezz gave himself. But you can't help but not care if Mezzrow was tootin' his own horn a bit.  The book is a great description of the first few decades of the 20th century in Chicago and New York, and a great book to read in the context of the current inabilities to understand the polyvalent concept of race in America.

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