Ben Ratliff at Bookforum:
On New Year’s Day of 1947, not long after Random House published Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir, Really the Blues, there took place at Town Hall a kind of musical-revue version of his life. “Mr. Mezzrow himself served as the narrator,” reported The New York Times the following day. “He told how he had encountered different jazz players in different places. Then the curtains opened and instrumentalists or singers acted the parts of the performers mentioned, performing in the styles of the originals.”
Mezzrow was an early traditionalist: His love for jazz centered on New Orleans–derived music and swing, and stopped before bebop, then a current language. He was a white jazz musician who played on some excellent records (including some sessions organized in late 1938 and early 1939 by the jazz critic Hugues Panassié, led variously by Mezzrow or the trumpeters Tommy Ladnier and Frankie Newton, and described in this book’s appendix 3); had a rigorous and principled feeling for the blues; followed a lifelong yearning to “be a musician, a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can”—yet was generally overshadowed, talent-wise, by his peers.
At Town Hall, the pianist Sammy Price played the role of Tony Jackson, who shows up early in the book. Jackson was a New Orleans–born musician who moved to Chicago, Mezzrow’s town, and died not long after the teenage Mezzrow saw him play at the Pekin Inn; he never recorded. And so Mezzrow’s eyewitness account of him, however stylized, remains valuable.