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Roots And Branches

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k fe F. i il&í&. ,J& ? Rcally M the filues by Mezz Mezzrow DoubledayAnchor A862. The Roois and Branches column was initiatcd by the SUN to bring valuable historica! works of our culture and politics to more at tention, as the coinmerciallydominated mass media tehds to destroy history by continually bom harding people almos t sokfy with the latcst, hot trend, product orpiece of litera ture. lhis issue wc focus on inc wrinngs o] Milton (Mezz) Mezzrow, one of the fint white jazz saxophonists to broce black, hipster culture and be represen fed by most of the I this year 's Blue 's and Jazz Festival. White, Jewish. herb-smoking Mezz and early prophet ' ' of today 's yóu th , fully emmusic as witi farmers at was a "father treek or rainbow culture, who decided during a stay in reform school to fully immerse himselfin the black trad it ion ofmusieand, relative to most white Americans ofhis day, liumanistic "Jown-to-earthness. " While Milton liad to move tfito Harlem to experíence black culture during the 1930's, mili ion s ofpeople do it now via the mass electronic media, which easily crosses ethnic boundaries more than anything befare its arrival, allowing for an unprecedented cultural mix in the present generatión. Certainly 50 years ago there were not millions ofyoung "white " people who looked up to the likes ofJimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Huey Newton or Bessie Smith as héroes, as there are now. Mezzrow was way ahead ofhis time. In this first excerpt from "Really the Blues", published originally in 946 but still available, Mezz begins with his reflections on black linguistics, and then describes his first meeting with the late, great blues powerhouse, Bessie Smith. In those days, if you pried the lid off my skull with a can-opener, you might have spotted some weird eels snaking through the whirlpool I lugged around under my hat. Maybe, for one thing, you would have scooped out some why-and-wherefore of 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 colored. Every word that rolled off my lips was soft and fuzzy, wrapped in a yawn, creeping with a slowmotion crawl. I was going on to twenty-seven, a Chicagoborn 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. Dave Tough, who tipped delicately over his words like they were thin ice, always used to lecture me on how important it was to keep your speech pure, pointing out that the French and people like that formed their vowels lovingly, shaping their lips just right when they spoke, while Americans spoke tough out of the corners of their mouth, clipping and crunching all the sounds. I always came back with the argument that the Negroes were one exception; their speech was full and rounded to my ears, and they never twisted their lips up like a gangster on an alum diet. I thought Dave's careful way of talking was too precise and effeminate. He thought I was kind of illiterate, even though he admired my musical taste and knowledge. He was always making me conscious of the way I talked because he kept on parodying the slurs and colloquial kicks in my speech, saying that I was just trying to ape the colored man. That got me steamed up. "Dave," I told him, "you know all the music we care anything about comes from the Negro, and if you want to dig our music you got to dig the guys who made it up. You can't get to know what a people are like, can you, unless you reaHy learn and know their language?" I tried to show him how f spent weeks studying Bessie Smith 's slaughter of the white man's dictionary, analyzing all her glides and slippery elisions, before I could figure out the secret of her blues singing. It turned out, though, that Dave had never heard Bessie sing, so the gab-session wound up one night with our breezing over to the dise J Gardens on 35 th near Calumet, to listen to the aueen of the blues pour her great heart out. She was featured there w Jimmy Noone's band. Bessie had such a ringing vibra voice of hers, and her tones boo clear and clanging full, you cou all the way down the street. There was a traffic jam out in front of that cafe; cats and their kittens blocked up the sidewalk, hypnotized by the walloping blues that came throbbine out of Bessie's throat. Dave and I just tnelted together in the blaze of Bessie's singing; that wasn't a voice she had, it was a flamethrower lickina out across the room. Bessie was a real woman, all woman, all the femaleness the world ever saw in one sweet package, with a high-voltage magnet for a ality. When she was in a room her vitality flowed out like a cloud and stuffed the air till the walls bulged. She didn"t have any mannerisms, she never needed any twirls and twitches to send those golden notes of hers on their sunshiny way . She just stood there and sang, letting the love and the laughter run out of her, and the heaving sadness too; she feit everything and swayed just a little with glory of being alive and feeling, and once in a while, with a grace that made you want to laugh and cry all at once, she made an eloquent little gesture with her hand. Bessie maybe never practiced her scales in any conservatory of music, wrestling with arpeggios, but she was an artist right down to her fingertips-a very great artist, born with silver strings for vocal cords and a foaming, churning soul to keep them a-quiver. Her style was so individual that nobody else ever grasped it. The way she let her rich music tumble out was a perfect example of improvisation-the melody meant nothing to her, she made up her own melody to fit the poetry of her story, phrasing all around the original tune if it wasn't just right, making the vowels come out just the right length, dropping the consonants that might trip up her story, putting just enough emphasis on each syllable to make you really know what she was getting at. She lived every story she sang; she was just telling you how it happened to her. After her number that night, Bessie and Jimmy carne over to our table for a few drinks. When 1 told her how long 1 had been listening to her records, how wonderful I thought they were and how Cemetery Blues inspired me to become a musician when 1 was a kid, she was very modest- she just smiled, showing those great big dimples of hers, fidgeted around and said, "Yeah, you like that?" l asked her would she do Cemetery Blues for me and she busted out laughing. "Boy," she said, "what you studyin' 'bout a cemetery for? You ought to be out in the park with some pretty chick." That night, and every time I saw her from then on, Bessie kept kidding me about the kinky waves in my hair; she's stroke my head once or twice and say, "You ain't had your hair fried, is you, boy? Where'd you get them pretty waves? I get seasick every time I look at them." Many's the time I almost peeled my whole goddamn scalp off, to hand to her on a silver platter. You ever hear what happened to that fine, full-of-life female voman? You know how she died? Well, she went on for years, being robbed by stinchy managers who would murder their own mothers for a deuce of blips, having to parade around in gaudy gowns full of dime-store junk and throw away her great art while the lushes and morons made cracks about her size and shape. She drank a lot, and there must have been plenty of nights when she got the blues she couldn't lose, but she went on singing, pouring out the richness and the beauty in her that never dried up. Then one day in 1937 she was in an automobile crash down in Mississippi, the Murder State, and 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 the people around there didn't care for her color of skin. The car tuined around and drove away, with Bessie's bic dripping oi floormat. ! final ly adrr er hospital ials must have been color-blind, but by that time she had lost so much blood that they couldn't opérate on her, and a little later she died. See that lonesome wad, iMwd, it got to end, sne usea to sing. That was how the lonesome road ended up fo the greatest folk singer this country ever heard wil Jim Crow directing the traffic. I cried when I heard about it. A lot of people die mother, sister, friend and lovin' woman to me and guys, and she taught us most all we knew and gave to keep straight with our music, and they took her her down South-murdered her in cold blood becai said, she wasn't no high yaller, just a beginner brow real woman than those Jim Crow mammyjamming know what to do with. Mczz was turned on to the life of a "viper" (jive slang for head) early in his career. Here he describes what happened after becoming a dealer of the best weed in all Harlem. One of my friends, a fine musician, cornered me one day and we began to discuss our outcome with the tea. I wasn't selling it yet, and we tried to analyze the difference there was between gauge and whisky. "Man, they can say what they want about us vipers," he said, "but you just dig them lushhounds with their old antique jive, always comin' up loud and wrong, whippin' their old ladies and wastin' up all their pay, and then the next day your head feels like all the hammers in the piano is beatin' out a tune on your brain. Just look at the difference between you and them other cats, that come uptown juiced to the gills, crackin' out of line and passin' out in anybody's hallway. Don't nobody come up thataway when he picks up on some good grass." I sure knew what he was talking about. The very same thing, that contrast between the lushies and the vipers, had hit me so hard way back in Chicago and Detroit, and I told him so. "Yeah," he said, "and then for instance you take a lot of ofay liquor-heads, when they come up here and pass the jug around. Half of them wil! say they had enough 'cause some spade just took a drink out of it, and those that do take it will hem and haw. tryin' to rub the top off the.bottle so's you can't see them, 'fore they put it to their chops. Now viper, he'll take it right out of your hand and go to puffin' on it not even thinkin' about who had it on his chops be fore. Them Indians must of had some gauge in that pipe of peace that they passed around, at least they had the right idea, ha ha! Now, far as hurtin' anybody is concerned, you know and 1 know that we can wake up the next day and go on about our business, marihuana or mary-don't-wanna, and that's that. It ain't against the law and you told me they couldn't put it under the Harrison Act because it wasn't habitforming, so let's carry on from here. We'll both smoke it every day for about two or three months and then one of us'll quit for a while and find out for ourselves what happens." That's exactly what we did. I was the first one to stop for a trial, and 1 have yet to find any bad after-effects, outside of a further I want to make one thing clear; I never advocated that anybody sliould use marijuana, and I sure don't mean to start now. tven dunng the years when I sold the stuff I never "pushed" it like a salesman pushes vacuüm cleaners or Fuller brushes. I had it for anybody who carne asking, if he was a friend of mine. I didn't promote it anywhere, and I never gave it to kids, not even to little Franki Walker. I so!d it to grown-up friends of mine who had got to using it on their own, just like I did; it was a family affair, not any high-pressure business. Sort of everybody to their own notion, that was the whole spirit. I laid off five years ago, and if anybody asks my advice today, I teil them straight to steer clear of it because it carries a rap. That's my final word to all the cats; today I know of one very bad thmg tea can do to you- ít can put you ín jail. Nuff said.) Most of us were getting our tea from some Spanish boys, and one day they showed up with a guy who pushed the stuff in Detroit when I was there. He wasn't selling it anymore, but he put us in touch with another cat who kept coming up from Mexico with real goldenleaf, the best that could be had. As soon as we got some ' of that Mexican bush we almost blew our tops. Poppa, you never smacked your chops on anything sweeter in all your days of viping. It had such a wonderful smell and the kick you got was really out of this world. Guys used to say it tasted like chocolate candy, a brand Hershey never even thought of. I laid it on the cats in the Barbeque, and pretty soon all Harlem was after me to light them up. I wasn't working then and didn't have much money left to gaycat with, but 1 couldn't refuse to light my friends up. Before I knew it I had to write to our connection for a large supply, because everybody I knew wanted some. "Man, yoifcan be ridin' on rubber in no time with that stuff, and it ain't against the law neither," the cats told me. "Just think how many cats you can make happy," they kept saying. Before I knew it, I was standing on The Comer pushing gauge. Only I did no pushing. I just stood under the Tree of Hope, my pokes full up, and the cats came and went, and so did all my golden-leaf. Overnight I was the most popular man in Harlem. New words carne into being to meet the situation: the mezz and the mighty mezz, referring, I blush to say, to me and to the tea both; mezzroll, to describe the kind A of fat, well-packed and clean cigarette I used to roll (this word later got corrupted to mesen lc and it's still used to mean a certain size and shape of reefer, which is different than the i so-called pantella); the hard-cuttin ' inezz A continued on page 28 A "Dave, "I told him, "you know all the music we care anything about comes from the Negro, and ifyou want to dig our music you got to dig the guys who made it up. You can 't get to know what a people are like, can you, unless you really learn and know their language?" f tried to show him how I spent weeks studying Bessie Smith 's slaughter of the white man 's dictionary bef ore I could figure out the secret of her blues singing. Mezz Mezzrow continued from page 19 and the righteous bush. Some of those phrases really found a permanent place in Harlemese, and even crept out to color American slang in general. I was knocked out the other day when I picked up a copy of Cab Calloway's Hipster's Dictionary and found mezz defined there as "anything supreme, genuine"; and in Dan Burley's Original Handbook ofHarlem Jive the same word is defined as meaning "tops, sincere"! Stuff Smith wrote a song, later recorded by Rosetta Howard for Decca under the name of You 're a Viper, that started out Dreamed about a reef er five foot long The mighty mezz but not too strong Y ou 'II be high but not for long Ifyou 're a viper. The words lozies and lozeerose we re coined so guys could refer to my gauge without having anybody else dig it, and some of our musician pais used to stick these hip phrases into their songs when they broadcast over the radio, because they knew we'd be huddled around the radio in the Barbeque and that was their way of saying helio to me and all the vipers. That mellow Mexican leaf really started something in Harlem-a whole new language, almost a whole new culture. The hard-cuttin' mezz really cut a brandnew one in this old world, through no fault of mine.