Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Report: "Really the Blues," by Mezz Mezzrow

"Really The Blues" demonstrates how it's good having something to do.

Talk about alternative paths. Milton "Mezz" Mezzrow blazed one through the jungle of conformity, "went black," lost time to drugs, fomented early 20th century jazz, became too familiar with jail, but remained focused on a vision.

Were it not for the journey New Orleans jazz made up the Mississippi to Chicago in the early paces of the 20th century, Milton Mezzrow would have had, like all of us, a story to tell, but no audience.

His story stands on three sturdy and utterly novel legs.

One was a total adhesion to all things African-American, or Negro, as they said in his day. A second was the aforementioned passion for a very specific jazz the came up out of the Crescent City and got amplified by his friend, Louis "Pops" Armstrong. The third was a commitment to the manifold virtues of marijuana or, as he alternately referred to it: golden leaf, gauge, muta, and -- highwayscribery's favorite -- muggles.


Raised on Chicago's south side, "Mezz" landed in jail early. More stupid than criminal, his interest in the clarinet and saxophone kept the young Jewish jailbird on the up-and-up; focused and ennobled his misbegotten adventures.

His story really takes form upon moving to New York with Gene Krupa and a tiara of future jazz-era jewels in an attempt at storming the music industry's gates with their hot new toy.

Settling in Harlem, establishing his base at the intersection of 133rd Street and Seventh Ave., Mezzrow became the "white mayor," the "link between the races," ambassador for muggles, purveyor and recorder of a unique argot -- the poetry of the proletariat -- "jive."

The Mezz was an influential fellow in his moment and this jive the dominant tongue at the intersection of Cool Street and Downbeat Avenue.

"Really the Blues," came out when Jack Kerouac was digging the music Mezz expounds upon, and it's no fantasy to surmise that the beat poet's jazz-infused prose are not heavily influenced by this book and the way it is told.

We're suggesting, without a hint of accusation, that Kerouac borrowed heavily from, or at least riffed on, the Mezzrow's mostly forgotten text. It's called research and is born of the writer's anthropological duty.

Colorful or operatic, Mezzrow's life was rarely easy, but he kept blowing horns, in and out of jail, searching for a soul-state firmly rooted in his beloved New Orleans jazz.

An uncompromising commitment to the style finally bore fruit in his savoring of Sidney Bechet's "Blues of Bechet" and "The Sheik of Araby."

He describes the epiphany thusly:

"It meant: Life gets neurotic and bestial when people can't be at peace with each other, say amen to each other, chime in with each other's feeling and personality; and if discord is going to rule the world, with each guy at the next guy's throat, all harmony gone -- why, the only thing for a man to do, if he wants to survive, if he won't get evil like all the other beasts in the jungle, is to make that harmony inside himself, be at peace with himself, unify his own insides while the snarling world gets pulverized."

The next natural and positive step for Mezzrow was to team-up with Bechet.

In a publication called "The Record Changer," reviewer Ernest Bornemen said that these tracks, "went back beyond Louis and beyond Bunk Johnson and beyond Buddy Bolden, to the very roots of music, to the cane and the rice and the indigo and the worksongs and the slave ships and the dance music of the inland Ashanti and the canoe songs of the Wolof and Mandingo along the Senegal River."

The review represented Mezz's crowning moment. Not as a professional poo-bah, but as proof that he had reached an important milestone in his musically inspired drive for spiritual wholeness.

Mezzrow closes his by relating how writer Bernard Wolfe convinced him to cough-up an autobiography. Wolfe's word's best describe what's on tap in "Really the Blues."

"Not very many people have gotten a good look at their country from that bottom-of-the-pit angle before, seen the slimy underside of the rock. It's a chunk of Americana, as they say, and should get written. It's a real American success story, upside down: Horatio Alger standing on his head.

"In a real sense, Mezz, your story is the plight of the creative artist in the USA. -- to borrow a phrase from Henry Miller...It's the odyssey of an individualist, through a land where the population is manufactured by the system of interchangeable parts. It's the saga of a guy who wanted to make friends, in a jungle where everybody was too busy making money an dodging his own shadow."

Mission accomplished, Milton.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Told You So

Told you so.

Jerry Brown, outspent 6-to-1 by ebay bazillionaire Meg Whitman, made it look easy in returning to the office he left 27 years prior.

Moonbeams ago, we suggested in "Jerry Brown: The Chessman Cometh," that the former Governor-Mayor of Oakland-Treasurer-Attorney General's lackadaisical campaign was born of a sublime knowledge about how the California mind works.


Meanwhile Whitman, as we also forecast, spent nearly $180 million in an effort that downgraded her status to late-night joke punchline.

In California, where we happily take stimulus money and give our state a facelift; where we recognize an oil industry-financed campaign against the laws enacted to limit the crap in our air; where we don't allow candidates who accept corporate funding to delude us with cant about liberty and freedom; in California, Democrats won every major state office.

Barbara Boxer, whom highwayscribery never believed was in any kind of trouble, beat a discredited Hewlett Packard executive rather easily, because her actions matched her commercials' claims of standing up for the little guy/gal.

Kamala Harris, defeated L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley, because L.A. politicians don't fair well statewide and because Cooley's a jerk who spent too much time making hay on the marijuana issue in a place where smoking marijuana's not an issue.

A guy like that isn't going to beat a gal named after the courtesan lover of "Siddhartha" from Herman Hesse's classic novel.

Not in Cali.

Nationally, highwayscribery's prediction the Democrats might hold onto their majority was impacted by this same Blue State insularity and a cash windfall from undisclosed sources that would make Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito blush, if he had any shame.

Which he doesn't.

But it doesn't really matter. Scott Brown's election to the U.S. Senate last autumn, by the otherwise sane people of Massachusetts, effectively ended the Democrats' ability to halt Republican obstruction in that dysfunctional institution.

In the end, a House majority means squat without a similar advantage in the upper house and the White House.

Two houses beat one every time.

John Boehner can run his legislative paper mill day-in-day-out, passing tax cuts for the rich, de-funding the health care bill, and neutering American unions, but those measures won't get any farther than that chamber's portal.

In an environment befouled by an economic crash that started on the prior administration's watch, the House Democrats lost seats in places where Republicans reliably roost, but withstood challenges in the Senate from low-grade Tea Party picks like Ken Buck in Colorado.

The Tea Party, for all the breathless analysis it has spawned, was a wash last night (though you won't read, hear, or see that anywhere). Yes, Rand Paul won in Kentucky and good luck with that Mitch McConnell.

Kentuckians should only be slightly less ashamed of voting-in a guy whose supporters step on ladies' heads than the Louisianans who reelected a man (Sen. David Vitter) who enjoys a good bordello stop between filibusters.

Can you say political metaphor?

Christine O'Donnell lost in Delaware, where the GOP had a chance to grab a Senate seat until the Tea Party stuck its runny, juvenile nose into the mix. And Joe Miller is losing up in Alaska to someone whose name you had to find on six pages of write-in candidates, consisting mostly of his ornery supporters.

(Don't ask).

Yes, Marco Rubio won in Florida, but, even as a Democrat, the highway scribe would have to admit he was the most compelling candidate in that race.

Parties are good, and loyalty to them useful, but you should always vote for the smartest guy/gal on the ballot.

The founding fathers were kind to minorities. And so it looks like so much thunder on the right, because those voting where less people reside went GOP, while states where everybody lives, and which generate most of the national wealth, ie., New York and California, stayed emphatically Democratic.

In short, this is simply not the end of the world.

As the "Washington Post's" Ezra Klein noted, "A few dozen politicians" lost their jobs last night, but the country won in the long run.

Wrote Klein, "[I]f you see the point of politics as actually getting things done, the last two years, for Democrats, have been a stunning success. Whatever else you say about the 111th Congress, it got things done."

highwayscribery recommends you read his beautifully crafted laundry list of accomplishments.

A "New York Times" conservative stand-in, Ross Douhat, mostly agreed with Klein, to whose article he linked his own post-mortem entitled, "Was It Worth It?"

"Politics," he wrote, "often gets covered as though the legislative sessions are just a long prelude to the real action of election season. But for all the breathless horse-race coverage, elections only matter to the extent that they produce (or forestall) actual legislation. And where the policies of the United States government are concerned, all the ground the Republicans gained tonight doesn't change the fact that what liberals achieved in Barack Obama's first two years in office was more consequential than any conservative victory in recent memory."

It's hard to envision the GOP and its single house delivering like results to a fickle and impatient people in the 12 months before media outlets begin shaping perceptions for 2012.

Congratulations on those new seats, Republicans, but don't get too comfortable.