Friday 5 June 2009

Jazz and the myth of authenticity

Really the Blues, by Mezz Mezzrow

It’s hard to think of any music more unfashionable than ‘traditional jazz’, a term now often lazily applied, in these jazz-indifferent times, to any type of jazz pre-dating Miles Davis or John Coltrane. In Britain, Trad, a highly stylised form of music derived from New Orleans jazz but with all subtlety, skill, and beauty removed, was once the music of CND protest and youthful middle class radicalism, and even ended up for a while in the pre-Beatles 1960s providing hit records for the very music industry that its first followers affected to despise. The very success of its offshoots, skiffle and R’n’B, sowed the seeds of its popular demise, but Trad limps on into the twenty-first century and almost every town can still muster its own parish Trad band. A monthly publication advertises Trad jazz venues all over the country, as well as annual festivals and small record companies catering to a loyal if predominantly aged following. Despite this local persistence, traditional jazz has little cultural clout anywhere in the world these days.

So why should Really the Blues, the autobiography of the Chicagoan clarinettist and dealer in narcotics, Milton Mezz Mezzrow (1899 – 1972), first published in 1946 and once a key text for the traditional jazz cult, continue to enjoy the status of a famously neglected classic that reappears every few years, rebranded and remarketed for a new generation of readers in a way that no other book on jazz ever does?

It’s not as if Mezzrow was ever taken very seriously as a musician by any of his contemporaries and heroes. ‘I like him’ wrote the veteran bass player Pops Foster, ‘but man he can’t play no jazz.’(1) ‘He writes great books,’ was fellow clarinettist Albert Nicholas’s reported assessment of Mezzrow’s talents. One eminent critic once wrote that he preferred the American issue of an LP to the French edition because its producers had edited out ‘several incompetent clarinet solos by Mezz Mezzrow.’ (2) Mezzrow’s egotism meant he was never shy of surrounding himself with musicians certain to highlight his limitations. He is consistently overshadowed by the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet on the records he and Bechet made together in the mid-1940s for Mezzrow’s own King Jazz label, with Bechet producing some of his most moving recorded solos. Despite his much-vaunted friendship with Louis Armstrong, Mezzrow appears to have been most useful to Armstrong as a source for good quality dope, and his only appearance on record alongside Louis (and even that is open to doubt) is when he played chimes in imitation of a fireman’s bell on Armstrong’s 1932 recording of ‘Hobo You Can’t Ride This Train’, a track more notable for the entertaining vocal and superb trumpet playing of the leader.

Really the Blues, though, prefigures many contemporary preoccupations that first found overt expression in the 1960s counterculture. To promote its status as such, it hits the shops this time round with endorsements from Tom Waits, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and Albert Goldman, one of several biographers of beat novelist Jack Kerouac.

Mezzrow was one of a group of young men, most of them the sons of working and lower-middle class European immigrants to Chicago, who came of age at a time when, in the wake of the mass migration of black workers from the Southern states seeking escape from the near feudalism of the South in the relatively freer northern industrial centres such as Chicago. Black jazz musicians, mostly from New Orleans, started to perform in the clubs and cabarets of the South Side ghetto. Driven by a true appreciation of the music they heard and a desire to play it themselves, Mezzrow’s contemporaries must be distinguished from the sort of upper-class thrill-seekers who, throughout the 1920s, went slumming in the clubs of the predominantly black New York suburb of Harlem. Mezzrow, though, was perhaps the only one of his group to have spent time in reform school, where he first took up a musical instrument. Perhaps, therefore, sensing some distance from his peers, Mezzrow began to affect the mannerisms, as he saw them, of a black American.

In his book Arrested Development, Andrew Calcutt observes: ‘The embrace of black culture has always been seen as a sign of the counterculture’s good faith.’ (3) Mezzrow was insistent that jazz was exclusively the product of black Americans, and that any white musician attempting to play jazz must have his performance measured for quality against the playing of black practitioners. The aim of white jazz musicians, then, was ‘authenticity’, the key to which was held solely by black jazz musicians. Mezzrow translated this stricture from the realm of purely musical matters into an entire world view. He describes the ‘white man’ as ‘a spoiled child’ who ‘when he gets the blues…goes neurotic.’ He goes on to praise what he sees as the healthier ‘black’ attitude to sex: ‘as downright simple and hygienic as getting your ashbin cleaned out’ and describes Harlem as a place ‘where people were real and earthy.’

To separate himself, as he would see it, from ‘respectable’ society, Mezzrow imitated the speech patterns of working class black Americans. But for Mezzrow this was all perfectly ‘natural’ and seemingly beyond his control. Concerning the ‘thick Southern accent I was developing. It’s a fact – I wasn’t putting my mind to it, but I’d started to use so many of the phrases and intonations of the Negro, I must have sounded like I was trying to pass for coloured. Every word that rolled off my lips was soft and fuzzy, wrapped in a yawn, creeping with a slow-motion crawl. I was going on to twenty-seven, a Chicago-born Jew from Russian parents, and I’d hardly ever been south of the Capone district, but I sounded like I arrived from the levee last Juvember.’ Evidently Mezzrow was the first of the ‘wiggas,’ those whites for whom the imitation of a caricatured black culture affords access to a supposedly more meaningful and more ‘authentic’ way of life.

In Jazz: A People’s Music, published in 1948, just two years after Really the Blues, the critic Sidney Finkelstein rightly pointed out that ‘race’ is ‘an unscientific and meaningless term. The Negro people of America, in ancestry and physiology, are not a race,’ and that, far from passively accepting racism, black Americans were ‘putting up a collective struggle to live as free human beings on equal terms with anybody else.’ (4) Sadly, this is not the case on Planet Mezzrow where ‘the Negro never had anything before and never expects anything after, so when the blues get him he comes out smiling and without any evil feeling. “Oh, well,” he says, “Lord, I’m satisfied. All I wants to do is to grow collard greens in my back yard and eat ‘em”.’ ‘Race’, combined with a rejection of transformative political action, has always been a precious concept to the counterculture.

Mezzrow dehistoricises, and therefore depoliticises, racism; he simply attributes its cause to white moral depravity. The fault all seems to lie with stupid white men. Witnessing an assault on a black prisoner, he ‘began to realise right there what the Civil War really meant…The Tennessees and Texases wanted to kill every Negro they could lay their mitts on – you could see it in their faces. I’d never seen such murdering hatred before.’ Imprisoned on Riker’s Island for drug dealing, Mezzrow remarks that ‘colored cons were different; almost any colored guy can land in jail…because of their conditions of life, not because they were rotted and maggot-eaten inside.’ Mezzrow’s answer to this state of affairs was to register as ‘colored’ and apply, successfully, to be incarcerated with black prisoners, thus effecting a solidarity in powerlessness.

All later editions of Really the Blues include an afterword by Bernard Wolfe, a former secretary and body guard to the exiled Trotsky, and Mezzrow’s editor and co-author, who supplies a necessary corrective to much of what has gone before. Recognising that ‘negrophilia’ is the flipside of ‘negrophobia’, Wolfe writes: ‘By a devious interracial irony the ‘creative’ Negro, far from being his own spontaneous self, may actually be dramatising the white man’s image of the ‘spontaneous’ Negro ‘as he really is.’’

For Mezzrow the bohemian lifestyle of a musician (with income supplemented by dealing in marijuana) allows him to disdain the lives of ‘chumps who have to rise and shine in the morning, slaves to the alarm clock’ who ‘sure don’t understand us creative artists none.’

Really the Blues prefigures the counter-culture’s advocacy of childhood and the relinquishing of adult responsibilities and privileges in search of a supposedly lost innocence and freshness of vision where, in Mezzrow’s words, ‘your daydreams were acted out right before your eyes.’ In an effort to cure his drug dependence, Mezzrow, finding little useful information in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, acts on the advice of his doctor who recommends him to ‘go out in the street and play with the little kids, those around seven or eight, get in their ball games and see through their eyes, and gradually everything will come back to you.’ With tedious inevitability, Mezzrow finds renewal by employing this very strategy.

The cornettist Bix Beiderbecke (whose early death in 1931 from alcoholism made him an early martyr to the pop culture) disappointed Mezzrow because of his desire not to live in a permanent adolescence. ‘He started wearing wing collars, got himself cleaned up, sprouted a moustache and an English accent, and even began washing his socks.’ Even worse, Bix’s musical ambitions went beyond playing hot jazz. ‘Jazz wasn’t riot in music to him; his head always gave orders to his heart,’ and ‘the jazz wasn’t the end for him, it was just a springboard to something else, some new kind of expression that would let him say different things.’ How dare he…

Mezzrow anticipates the anti-intellectualism of the pop culture and its cultivation of extreme subjectivism, forsaking conscious control and skill for passivity. Andrew Calcutt has written of how ‘with its reliance on sensory impact, music is the art form best suited to take advantage of the discrediting of intellect.’ (3) Mezzrow describes how, when playing clarinet with a prison band, he once ‘fell into a queer dreamy state, a kind of trance, where it seemed like I wasn’t in control of myself any more, my body was running through its easy relaxed motions and my fingers were flying over the keys without any push or effort from me – somebody else had taken over and was directing all my moves, with me just drifting right along with it…’

Jazz has too often been portrayed as a music of victims and casualties of racism, alcoholism, drug addiction, and of a society that has no use for the jazz musician’s art. (‘You knock yourself out making a great new music for the people, and they treat you like some kind of plague or blight…’ says Mezz.) The careers of those musicians who, for various reasons, died young are cited as exemplary instances of ‘the jazz life’. It is assumed that the facts of their blighted lives can somehow ‘explain’ or offer a key to an understanding of their art. Mezzrow makes much of the tragic death of the black singer Bessie Smith, ‘in an automobile crash down in Mississippi, the Murder State, … her arm was almost tore out of its socket. They brought her to the hospital but it seemed like there wasn’t any room for her just then – the people around there didn’t care for the color of her skin.’

The origin of this story was an article in Downbeat by the record producer John Hammond. When the facts of the case emerged, it turned out that the ambulance driver, who would never have taken a black patient to a whites-only hospital, had taken Smith straight to a black hospital in Clarksdale less than a mile away. Bessie’s arm was amputated but she died without regaining consciousness. Hammond later retracted his story. Mezzrow evidently felt it offered too good a chance to patronise and lecture his readers on the real horrors of segregation and racism even if by means of a discredited story.

Really the Blues was published following the resumption of recording activity in New Orleans in the 1940s when musicians such as trumpeters Kid Rena and Bunk Johnson, and clarinettist George Lewis were recorded by small, amateur labels, proving, in the words of critic Max Harrison, that in New Orleans ‘jazz had continued following its own path long after the main interest had supposedly moved to Chicago, New York and elsewhere.’ (5) Mezzrow played no part in this, but, in 1938, he was jointly responsible for a series of sessions organised in New York by the visiting French critic Hugues Panassie at which Mezzrow was recorded with Sidney Bechet and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, a black trumpeter who had received his musical training in New Orleans. The Panassie sessions (as they became known) marked a return to recording for Bechet and Ladnier, ending several years of obscurity. Mezzrow’s account of these sessions forms an appendix to Really the Blues.

Panassie’s first book, Hot Jazz: The Guide to Swing Music, published in 1934, praised the work of too many white jazz musicians for Mezzrow’s liking, but by 1942, when Panassie’s second major work, The Real Jazz, was published, he had adopted Mezzrow’s view of the primacy and superiority of black jazz musicians. Seeking to correct the popular identification of jazz with the music purveyed by highly successful white swing band leaders such as Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman (both were clarinetists), Panassie extravagantly praised Mezzrow as ‘by far the greatest jazz clarinetist that the white race has produced.’ (6) After the war, Mezzrow became a cult figure to French traditional jazz fans. Eventually, he left the United States and settled in Paris.

The early followers of traditional jazz pointed to jazz’s supposed origins in the brothels and cabarets of Storyville the New Orleans’ red-light district. Following the closure of Storyville in 1917 by the port authorities, the music, so the legend goes, was taken upriver to Chicago from New Orleans by out-of-work musicians. This almost wholly inaccurate account indicates a desire for some to associate jazz with the seamier, supposedly more ‘authentic’, side of life, of which blacks were seen as the very embodiment. Really the Blues helped shape this mythology of the jazz life as one lived on the margins of society, rejecting its rewards and opposing its values, and ignores the fact that a career in music had, even by the 1920s, attracted many members of the black middle class.

The critic Hsio Wen Shih describes this emerging type of musician:

‘He was born about 1900, into a Negro family doing better than most, possibly in the Deep South, but more likely on its fringe; in either case, his family usually migrated North in time for him to finish high school. If he had gone to college, and he often had, he had gone to Wilberforce or a fringe school like Howard or Fisk. He might have aimed at a profession and fallen back on jazz as a second choice. He was, in any case, by birth or by choice, a member of the rising Negro middle class; he was Fletcher Henderson, or Don Redman, or Coleman Hawkins, or Duke Ellington.’ (7)

The counterculture never did have any time for aspiration. Jazz, for some, may have been a form of cultural slumming, but for many blacks, working at monotonous, low-paid jobs and paying high rents to live in overcrowded apartment buildings, the music and its performers offered a glimpse of a better life that was demonstrably within the grasp of black Americans. Music was one arena in which blacks could be seen to excel.

Reviewing a biography of the bandleader and pianist, Count Basie, Eric Hobsbawm once wrote:

‘The conviction of the early Basie band lay in [the] capacity to exult. For the professional musician of Basie’s day, as he himself puts it, ‘playing music has never really been work’. It was more even than a way of having a good time. It was, as sport is for the athlete, a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.’ (8)

A large number of jazz autobiographies have been published since Really the Blues first appeared. In contrast to Mezzrow’s version of events, most of them emphasise the hard-won mastery of music and the pursuit of excellence often under uncongenial working conditions. Finkelstein’s Jazz: a People’s Music, referred to above, has been out of print for several years. It has rightly been described as ‘the first mature statement of jazz criticism’, its ‘basic propositions… as relevant now as on first publication in 1948.’ (2) Although not written as a direct riposte to Mezzrow, it may well stand as such. Contrary to Mezzrow’s racial obsessions, Finkelstein writes: ‘There is no special and limited ‘music’ of the Negro people. They have a right to know and use all music, making it their own, as they took over whatever music they needed in the past.’ As if to answer Mezzrow’s devaluation of intelligence in music, Finkelstein states: ‘Jazz is not a product of the intelligence alone. No art is. Jazz is a flow of emotion in music guided by the most conscious skill, taste, artistry and intelligence.’ Finkelstein also writes:

‘For there is progress in human life, progress in respect to greater knowledge of the world, greater mastery over nature, greater potentialities of production and of human beings living better and more freely…These advances and potentialities…cultural and industrial, are every people’s right and ability.’ (4)

In an age of fashionable pessimism and modish misanthropy in the manner of John Gray, it is perhaps passages like these that have kept Finkelstein out of print and Mezzrow constantly and easily available.

Jazz is best appreciated and celebrated for the uniquely human, life-affirming, and aesthetic qualities identified by Hobsbawm and Finkelstein, and not as a means of craven withdrawal into the limitations set by the counterculture and its descendants. Despite efforts to make it appear so, the soundtrack to miserablism was never jazz, nor even, really, the blues.


1) Pops Foster. The autobiography of a New Orleans jazzman, as told to Tom Stoddard. Berkeley, Los Angeles, etc., University of California Press, 1971.
2) Max Harrison. A jazz retrospect. Newton Abbot, David and Charles, 1976.
3) Andrew Calcutt. Arrested development: pop culture and the erosion of adulthood. London and Washington, Cassell, 1998.
4) Sidney Finkelstein. Jazz: a people’s music. New York, Citadel Press, 1948.
5) Max Harrison. ‘Jazz’, in: Paul Oliver, Max Harrison, William Bolcom. The New Grove Gospel, blues and jazz with spirituals and ragtime. London, Macmillan, 1986.
6) Hugues Pannassie. The real jazz. Revised and enlarged edition. New York, A.S. Barnes, 1960.
7) Hsio Wen Shih. ‘The spread of jazz and the big bands’, in: Nat Hentoff and Albert McCarthy. Jazz. London, Jazz Book Club, 1959.
8) Eric Hobsbawm. ‘Count Basie’, in: Eric Hobsbawm. Uncommon people: resistance, rebellion and jazz. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998.

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