Mezz Mezzrow was a boy from Chicago who learned to play the sax in reform school and pursued a life in music and a life of crime. He moved from Chicago to New Orleans to New York, working in brothels and bars, bootlegging, dealing drugs, getting hooked, doing time, producing records, and playing with the greats, among them Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Fats Waller. Really the Blues, the jive-talking memoir that Mezzrow wrote at the insistence of, and with the help of, the novelist Bernard Wolfe, is the story of an unusual and unusually American life, and a portrait of a man who moved freely across racial boundaries when few could or did, "the odyssey of an individualist . . . the saga of a guy who wanted to make friends in a jungle where everyone was too busy making money."
Mezz Mezzrow (1899-1972) was born Milton Mesirow in Chicago to a Jewish family "as respectable as Sunday morning." As a teenager, however, he was sent to Pontiac Reformatory for stealing a car; there he learned to play the saxophone and decided to devote his life to the blues. Beginning in the 1920s, he had an intermittent career as a sideman in jazz groups, and struck up friendships with many of the greats of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Enamored of African American culture, he helped channel it to whiter and wider audiences, backing and producing significant recordings by Frankie Newton, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Bechet, and Tommy Ladnier, among others, and helping to spark the New Orleans revival of the late 1930s. In the 1940s, Mezzrow started his own record label, King Jazz Records. He spent the last years of his life in Paris.
Bernard Wolfe (1915-1985) was born in New Haven and attended Yale University, where he studied psychology. An active member of the labor movement, he moved to Mexico for eight months in 1937 to work as personal secretary and assistant to Leon Trotsky. In subsequent years, Wolfe held disparate jobs-from serving in the Merchant Marines to working as a pornographic novelist to editing Mechanix Illustrated-while writing fiction and science fiction. His best-known work is the 1959 novel The Great Prince Died, a fictional account of Trotsky's assassination. Among his other books are The Late Risers, In Deep, Limbo, and Logan's Gone.
Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996 and has written four books including The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music and Coltrane: The Story of a Sound. His latest book is Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty.