The Mighty Mezz!
The central figure for both the culture and the growing popularity of marijuana in the United States before its countercultural peak was Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who was born into an impoverished Jewish immigrant family in Chicago in 1899. Throughout his teen years, he got into trouble with the law and was a frequent visitor to reform schools and prisons, where he was first introduced to jazz and blues. Mezz engaged in the jazz scene of Chicago in the 1920s, where he befriended many of the greats, such as King Oliver, Sindey Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz icons. As a white man, Mezz was an unlikely player in the jazz world, but he praised and admired African-American culture and style. In his autobiography, Really the Blues, he wrote that from the moment he heard jazz he, "was going to be a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can." He married an African-American woman and moved to Harlem, New York. Here, he declared himself a "voluntary Negro" and was listed as African American on his draft card in World War II.
Mezz’s friendship with Louis Armstrong led him to become Armstrong’s assistant, and eventually, his manager. He planned, performed in, and financed many iconic recording sessions with the black titans of jazz in the 1930s and 40s. He helped reignite an interest in New-Orleans style jazz. Mezzrow's first recordings were released in 1933, under the band name Mezz Mezzrow And His Orchestra. Soon after, Mezz founded King Jazz Records, where he recorded almost 150 songs with other legendary black jazz musicians. Despite his lengthy and successful career, the general consensus was that he wasn’t a very good clarinetist, but he was still praised for his willingness to help other musicians in need and for his generosity and devotion to jazz.
Mezz became as well known for his marijuana proliferation as he did for his music. He advocated for marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs, and he was a reliable supplier to many musicians. His product was so well known in the jazz community that musicians called it “mezz” or “the mighty mezz,” and his marijuana cigarettes were tokened “mezz-rolls.” Mezz himself became known as the “Muggles King,” another slang term for marijuana at the time. He was truly the Johnny Appleseed of marijuana, and his product became so well known that he was referenced in the Stuff Smith song, "If You're a Viper," which starts out:
In 1940, he was arrested for his drug selling activities. When he was about to be placed in a cell with white prisoners, he protested that he was black, and was subsequently placed in the prison’s segregated black section.
Mezz also protested segregation and was a supporter of equal rights for all. He was a truly unique and complex individual who lived at a time when the values of the United States were undergoing dramatic changes, and he was at the forefront of America’s changing attitude towards marijuana. We honor the contributions Mezz has made to the music world and the cannabis community with our Jazz Appreciation Month blog series.