Commentary Magazine

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe

Show Me the Way to Go Home

Really The Blues.
By Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe.
New York, Random House, 1946. 388 pp. $3.00.

Really The Blues is the life story of the jazz clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, written by Mezzrow himself with the help of Bernard Wolfe. Born of a lower-middle class Jewish family in South Side Chicago, Mezzrow grew up in the pool rooms, roadhouses, and brothels where jazz was incubated in the 20's. He worked around the Capone gang, from time to time took on their vices, did stretches in Illinois jails, and—crucial for him—met Negro musicians who taught him jazz.

Jazz became Mezzrow's social out. He rejected his Jewishness and became a professional Negro. He embraced the whole black-white schism, finally went to live and marry in Harlem. To him, jazz is the irrational attribute of a race—Negroes can play it, whites cannot.

But by becoming a Negro, he did more than simply justify himself as a jazz musician—he was able to protest effectively against both his Jewishness and the whole idea of integration. Unlike the Tin Pan Alley Jewish composer who uses his music to crash society, Mezzrow employs jazz to underscore his particularism, his differences from the majority. He has rejected Jewish life to such an extent that he repudiates Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson on racial rather than aesthetic grounds. And it is not only in matters of music that Mezzrow glorifies the Negro, but also in matters of life. In a passage that really cracks open the core of the book—and offers Mezzrow's personal solution—he says: “Songs like Tony Jackson's show the Negro's real artistry with his prose, and the clean way he looks at sex, while all the white songs that ever came out of whorehouses don't have anything but a vulgar slant and an obscene idiom.” Obviously, for all the changes he has made in his life, Mezzrow still has the white man's concept of the Negro. To the white man, the Negro is an elemental animal for whom sex is “clean” just as it is “clean” for all animals. The implication, of course, is that sex is unclean among whites because they are not animals, but beings created for better things. Mezzrow resolutely turns his back on the more “advanced” evolution of the whites, chooses to be big in what is to him a small pond.

Mezzrow throws no light on jazz as music, and his analysis of how good jazz musicians are created asserts Negro lineage and penal servitude to be the necessary ingredients, with little consideration of the aesthetic platform—innate or practiced musicianship—upon which these factors must rest ultimately.

The book is further burdened with a style that is meant, one guesses, to approximate jazzman talk. Bernard Wolfe, a Jewish intellectual whose original social milieu closely parallels

Mezzrow's, and who, like Mezzrow, is fascinated by the exotic and taboo aspects of jazz, possibly felt that he had to write shapelessly to give Mezzrow's story authenticity. But the result is jargon like this: “It looked like my press-agent, Mr. Grapevine, was on the job again for me, and it didn't hurt my ego none. I didn't mind copping a slave just then because I could use the gold, and besides, the kid laid his racket so smooth that I warmed up to him.”

Yet Really The Blues is a book of some sociological importance; for Mezzrow is not only & good jazz clarinetist—he is also one of those rare Jews who hack out a solution for their lives well outside ethnic integration with the majority.

And the book does throw strong light on at least one aspect of the jazz-makers: they are a society of underdogs; they gather together and play for extra-musical reasons. But precisely for this reason, it is unlikely that they will ever produce musical art.

For Western art music, like all art, has developed through the momentum of its material—the tones, their composite moments, the conception of beauty. To be sure, this development hinges on sociological prerequisites, but these are only the external factors and within their framework the tonal material is given free play.

If Mezzrow's contention that jazz emanates from the underdog is correct and if we see that the stylistic cliches of jazz appropriate only the mannerisms of a 19th-century romanticism, an independent aesthetic evolution is unlikely to ensue, for then neither musical tradition nor the sheer weight of tones will make jazz move, merely the squalor and misery of slum existence thrown against a hurdy-gurdy background.

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