Jazz stars: Mess Mezzrow

Today, on the birthday of Mess Mezzrow, the American clarinetist and saxophonist and one of the most controversial personalities in jazz history, the Jazz Stars column features a story about his life and a new selection of music played by him.

On 9 November 1899, Milton "Mezz" Mesirow was born in Chicago, a clarinetist and saxophonist, who occupied a very special place in jazz history -- not so much as a brilliant performer but as a charismatic character. Milton (Mess) Mezzrow was a passionate promoter of New Orleans and Chicago jazz, and an activist for black people rights. He wrote a book of memoirs, 'Really the Blues', full of catching realities of the jazz world, apparently mixed with equally fascinating tall tales. Mezzrow grew up in a middle-class Jewish-American family. Even as a teenager, he displayed his rebellious nature: at 16, he was sent to a juvenile reformatory for stealing a car. In general, the Mezzrow biography was virtually a detective story. He was in prison three times, while being at liberty, dealing drugs. Even worked for Al Capone at one time.

In the 1920s, Mezzrow was already active on the Chicago jazz scene. According to many reports, he first helped white young performers and then began to bore them with his rather dogmatic musical views. As a clarinetist in the late 1920s, Mess Mezzrow played with the Austin High Gang, recorded with the Jungle Kings and the Chicago Rhythm Kings.

In the early 1930s, Mess Mezzrow came to New York and settled in Harlem, married a black woman, seeking to melt into the Negro environment, adopting the lifestyle, mode of dressing and inherent to African-Americans manner of talking. In the 1930s, he held several swing band recording sessions with various “all-star” line-ups, which he called 'The Disciples of Swing'. His great friend, French traditional jazz impresario and respected critic Hugues Panassier was one of the few who admired Mezzrow playing and often invited him to participate in recordings, including the rather famous 1938 sessions with Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet. The record producer Al Rose criticized the manner Mezzrow performing but praised him for his willingness to help musicians in need, alluding to Mezzrow well-known generosity and total dedication to jazz.

In the mid-1940s, Mezzrow founded his own record label, “King Jazz Records”. All his life Mezzrow 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 who would teach the world the blues the way only black people can”. Mezzrow felt that “he definitely crossed the line dividing racial identities" by declaring himself a “Negro”. He was the first to organize an orchestra at Broadway that had both white and black musicians in it.

Mezzrow performed at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1948, after which he settled in France and organized many bands that included French musicians such as Claude Luther and visiting Americans such as Buck Clayton, Jimmy Archie, Kansas Fields and Lionel Hampton. Together with former trumpeter Basie Buck Clayton, he organized a recording of “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong in Paris in 1953. He released his own last record in 1959.
Mezz Mezzrow died on August 5, 1972 in Paris.

REf. Hugues Panassier. The Story of True Jazz - royallib.ru.doc