Vail Jazz: Mezz, the Muggles King of jazz
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
Mezzrow is the name of a jazz club in Greenwich Village that I frequent when I am in New York City. The club was named after a clarinet player, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, one of the more fascinating characters in jazz history who epitomized the early years of jazz and the legendary “hipster” image of long ago.
Mezz was born into a middle class (some say impoverished) Jewish immigrant family in Chicago before the turn of the last century and died in 1972. Brushes with the law marked his teen years and he was in and out of reform schools and prisons, where he first was exposed to jazz and blues. Inspired to take up the clarinet (he also played the alto and tenor saxophone), Mezz immersed himself in the jazz scene of Chicago in the ’20s. Hanging out with many of the giants of jazz, his circle of musician friends included King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong and many other people of color. Embracing the culture of his African-American friends, he married an African-American woman and moved to Harlem. He explained later in his autobiography, “Really The Blues,” that when he first heard jazz he knew what his calling in life would be: He “was going to be a negro musician, hipping (or teaching) the world about the blues the way only negroes can” and he declared himself to be a “voluntary negro.”
In a career that was probably more noted for off-the-band-stand activities than accomplishments with his horn, his friendship with Louis Armstrong led him to be Armstrong’s personal assistant and for a time, his manager. He organized, played in and financed many historic recording sessions with the black titans of jazz in the ’30s and ’40s and he helped reignite an interest in New Orleans-style jazz. Ultimately, Mezz founded King Jazz Records in the mid-1940s, recording multiple sides with his friend Sidney Bechet, who is considered to be one of the greatest soprano sax players of all time. Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats. Notwithstanding the company he kept and recorded with, the consensus is that Mezz wasn’t one of the top clarinetists of the day. But it was his devotion to the music and generosity with his musician friends that earned him their respect.
I would be leaving out an important detail of this story if I didn’t tell you about Mezz’ activities as a marijuana dealer. He was an advocate of marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs and he was a reliable supplier to many musicians. In fact “mezz,” “the mighty mezz” and “mezz-rolls” all became slang for marijuana in the jazz community. Mezz himself was known as the “Muggles King,” another slang term for marijuana at the time. In 1940, he was busted for his drug selling activities and sentenced to jail. When he was about to be placed in a cellblock with other white prisoners, he protested that he was black and was ultimately placed in the prison’s segregated black section.
Mezz was an outspoken critic of segregation and a proponent of equal rights for all, well before the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Mezz was truly a complex, one-of-a-kind character that lived at a time when the values and mores of the U.S. were undergoing a dramatic change. He was right in the forefront of it all.
After appearing at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival, he joined many other ex-pat American jazz musicians living in France, making Paris his home during the last 20 years of his life, playing jazz and being Mezz.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’ performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.