Mezzrow, Mezz (originally, Mesirow, Milton)

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Mezzrow, Mezz (originally, Mesirow, Milton)

Mezzrow, Mezz (originally, Mesirow, Milton), jazz clarinetist, soprano saxophonist; b. Chicago, Nov. 9, 1899; d. Paris, Aug. 5, 1972. He first played saxophone in 1917 while serving a brief jail sentence. Around 1923, he began gigging in and around Chicago, including work with the Austin High Gang. In spring 1928, he moved to N.Y, where he gigged with several bands. In March 1929, he sailed to Europe, remaining abroad a month, including a stint leading his own band at a Parisian nightclub. On his return, he toured with Red Nichols, then worked with Jack Levy’s Orch. at Minsky’s in N.Y. During the 1930s he occasionally played clarinet and tenor sax, but was also a marijuana dealer. He organized his own all-star recording bands in 1933 and 1934 and took part in 1938 sessions supervised by Hugues Panassie. In late 1937, he led a racially mixed band in N.Y., a bold move for a performing group at that time. He continued to work and lead his own small groups through 1941, when he suffered a two-year absence from the music scene due to drug addiction. He was back to work in 1943, leading his own bands and working with others, including a stint with Art Hodes (1943–44). In 1946 he published his autobiography, Really the Blues, which included a frank account of his struggle with opium addiction. He spent most of the 1950s touring Europe with various “all-star” bands, and eventually settled in France. He revisited N.Y. shortly before his death in the early 1970s.

He was truly unique, a Jewish man who said he wished he were black because of his love for the music. He made his living more from selling marijuana than from his modest talents as a musician. His fame as a supplier of marijuana was supposedly unmatched in his day. He carried around a shoebox full at all times, and would call a particularly potent joint a “meziroll” or “mighty mezz.” The 1943 hit “The Reefer Song” by Fats Waller was an ode to his capabilities.


Mezz Mezzrow’s Swing Session (1954); Mezz Mezzrow in Paris, 1955 (1955); Mezz Mezzrow (1955); Schola Cantorum (1956); Mezz Mezzrow a La Scholas Canto (1956).


With B. Wolfe, Really the Blues (N.Y, 1946).

—John Chilton who’s who of Jazz/Lewis Porter