Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Gospel of Riff, Jazzbo Books Part 1: Really the Blues

Really the Blues tells the story of dixieland clarinetist, Jewish hepcat, merchant of muggles, ghost of old Harlem, and professor of jive, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. His tale, the title of which comes from a Sidney Bechet tune by the same name, spans the first four decades of the last century, with the prohibition era heyday of Hot Jazz as its centerpiece. While he occasionally played with old-time jazz giants like Bechet and Louis Armstrong, Mezz Mezzrow sounds as much like some original scenester, known for who he knew, where he hung, and for his uncompromising devotion to the “New Orleans idiom.”

The title refers to a superlative state of the blues, the low, lowdown blues, which, paradoxically enough, at least in Mezz’s story, lead to what he calls the “millennium”⎯that peak, mind-blowing ascent into the kind of American life that could have been⎯swingin’, harmonious, and hep⎯if this country wasn't full of racist, ofay squares. Really the Blues describes Mezz Mezzrow’s search for this millennium. Along the way the narrator gets his kicks and takes his share of lumps. He spends a season in Paris, and another several seasons in the pokey, then another in the orchestra pit at the original Minksy Brothers Theater, and several more kicking the gong around. But all of it, good and bad, is just part of that number Mezz wants so badly to be in. One of the book’s funniest moments involves Mezz and his hop-head pals, in dialog that nails the dope-fiend’s detachment from worldly matters, as they continue to get high and talk baseball while their tenement burns down around them. Finally, it will surprise readers (nearly as much as it did Mezzrow himself) to see where he finally meets the millennium.

As literature the book’s no shlub, but surprisingly sophisticated. The chapter titled “The Forgottenest Man in Town” offers a complex and powerful metaphor to illustrate how uncompromising vision is its own reward, and conversely, how selling out can be a form of banishment. And Mezz’s image of 1920’s Harlem, in all its romanticized glory, alive with jazz & jive, represents a utopic ideal. Really the Blues is ultimately a story of survival, which for Mezz Mezzrow means hanging onto his horn, staying true to the New Orleans idiom, and remaining a jazzman despite all those forces in American society that conspire to grind the artist to dust.

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