born on 9/9/1899 in Chicago, IL, United States
died on 5/8/1972 in Paris, France
Milton Mesirow (November 9, 1899 – August 5, 1972), better known as Mezz Mezzrow, was an American jazz clarinetist and saxophonist from Chicago, Illinois. He is well known for organizing and financing historic recording sessions with Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet. He also recorded a number of times with Bechet and briefly acted as manager for Louis Armstrong. Mezzrow is equally well remembered as a colorful character, as portrayed in his autobiography, Really the Blues (which takes its title from a Bechet composition), co-written with Bernard Wolfe and published in 1946.
Mezzrow organized and took part in recording sessions involving black musicians in the 1930s and 1940s, including Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Frankie Newton, Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet. Mezzrow's 1938 sessions for the French jazz critic Hugues Panassie involved Bechet and Ladnier and helped spark the "New Orleans revival".
In the mid-1940s Mezzrow started his own record label, King Jazz Records, featuring himself with groups, usually including Sidney Bechet and often including the trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page. He also played on six recordings by Fats Waller.
He appeared at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival, following which he made his home in France and organized many bands that included French musicians like Claude Luter and visiting Americans, such as Buck Clayton, Peanuts Holland, Jimmy Archey, Kansas Fields and Lionel Hampton. With ex-Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton, he made a recording of the Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" in Paris in 1953.
Mezzrow became better known for his drug dealing than his music. In his time, he was so well known in the jazz community for selling marijuana that Mezz became slang for marijuana, a reference used in the Stuff Smith song, "If You're a Viper". He was also known as the Muggles King, the word muggles being slang for marijuana at that time; the title of the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording "Muggles" refers to this. Armstrong was one of his biggest customers.
Record producer Al Rose was critical of Mezzrow's musicianship, saying that in his opinion "he wasn't a very good clarinetist," but praised him for his willingness to help other musicians in need, citing "his generosity and his total devotion to the music we call jazz."
Mezzrow praised and admired the African-American style. In his autobiography, Really the Blues, he wrote that from the moment he heard jazz he "was going to be a Negro musician, hipping [teaching] the world about the blues the way only Negroes can."
Mezzrow married a black woman, Mae (also known as Johnnie Mae), moved to Harlem, New York, and declared himself a "voluntary Negro". He believed that "he had definitely 'crossed the line' that divided white and black identities". In 1940 he was arrested in possession of sixty joints while trying to enter a jazz club at the 1939 New York World's Fair, with intent to distribute. When he was sent to jail, he insisted to the guards that he was black and was transferred to the segregated prison's black section. In Really the Blues, he wrote:
Just as we were having our pictures taken for the rogues' gallery, along came Mr. Slattery the deputy and I nailed him and began to talk fast. 'Mr. Slattery,' I said, 'I'm colored, even if I don't look it, and I don't think I'd get along in the white blocks, and besides, there might be some friends of mine in Block Six and they'd keep me out of trouble'. Mr. Slattery jumped back, astounded, and studied my features real hard. He seemed a little relieved when he saw my nappy head. 'I guess we can arrange that,' he said. 'Well, well, so you're Mezzrow. I read about you in the papers long ago and I've been wondering when you'd get here. We need a good leader for our band and I think you're just the man for the job'. He slipped me a card with 'Block Six' written on it. I felt like I'd got a reprieve.
Mezzrow was lifelong friends with the French jazz critic Hugues Panassié and spent the last 20 years of his life in Paris.
Eddie Condon said of him (We Called It Music, London; Peter Davis 1948), "When he fell through the Mason-Dixie line he just kept going".
Mezz Mezzrow was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
- 1947: Really the Blues, Jazz Archives (France)
- 1951: Mezz Mezzrow & His Band Featuring Collins & Singleton, Blue Note
- 1954: Mezz Mezzrow
- 1954: Mezz Mezzrow with Frankie Newton, Victor Records
- 1954: Mezz Mezzrow's Swing Session, X Records
- 1954: Mezzin' Around, RCA
- 1955: Mezz Mezzrow, Disques Swing
- 1955: Paris 1955, Vol. 1, Disques Swing
- 1955: Mezz Mezzrow in Paris, 1955, Jazz Time Records
- 1956: Mezz Mezzrow a La Schola Cantorum, Ducretet-Thomson Records
- 1995: Makin' Friends, EPM
- 2007: Tells the King Jazz Story, Crisler
- 2012: Mezzrow and Bechet Remastered, Gralin Music
- Allmusic. Mezz Mezzrow Biography.
- Barcott, Bruce (2015). Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America. New York: Time Books. p. 32. ISBN 1-6189-3140-7.
- Rogovoy, Seth (2015). "The Original Rachel Dolezal Was a Jew Named Mezz Mezzrow". Forward, June 26. p. 16.
- Rose, Al (1987). I Remember Jazz: Six Decades Among the Great Jazzmen. Baton Rouge and London: LSU Press. pp. 17–19. ISBN 0-8071-2571-7.
- Wald, Gail. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Quoted by Rogovoy, p. 16.