There is no disputing that the vast majority of gifted, African-American jazz musicians were largely responsible for the development of this authentically American musical form. It is also clear that these musicians were not alone in their efforts to produce great art. Adrian Cho, in her essay “Jewish Influences in Jazz,” notes that:
Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Alan Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were some of the great songwriters and lyricists who put Tin Pan Alley on the virtual musical map. Jewish influence in Tin Pan Alley was so strong that Cole Porter reportedly attributed his success to the fact that he wrote “Jewish music,” although he was not Jewish himself. (https://carleton.ca/linr/wp-content/uploads/Handout-1-3.pdf)
American Jews also supported jazz by attending concerts, buying records, and working as agents, managers, attorneys, producers and label heads. As partners, African-Americans and American Jews created, produced, manufactured and marketed a musical genre that appealed to and brought together music enthusiasts of all backgrounds, establishing jazz as a symbol of the American “melting pot.” The fellowship between African American jazz musicians and American Jews could be found throughout the jazz ranks, but was nowhere more apparent than in the relationship between Louis Armstrong and his close friend, Milton Mezzrow.
One of the first African-American artists associated with jazz musicianship, Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 and grew up without a father. Raised by his grandmother, and later his mother, young Louis began working for a Jewish family called the Karnoffskys in his free time. The Karnoffskys brought Armstrong into their home, treating him as one of the family, loaning him the money to purchase his first coronet, and providing the venue for Louis’s first public performance. Living with a Jewish family revealed to the young trumpeter that, like African-Americans, American Jews were also treated poorly and subject to discrimination. For the rest of his life, Armstrong wore a Star of David pendant around his neck in solidarity with the Karnoffskys and with American Jews, telling others that the Jewish family taught him “how to live – real life and determination” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong)
A few decades later, in the 1930s, when Louis Armstrong was a performing jazz musician, he struck up a long-lasting and productive relationship with a young American Jew named Milton Mezzrow. In his exhaustive social history of marijuana, Smoke Signals, author Martin A. Lee recounts the story of “Mezz” (as Mezzrow was widely known) and how he and Armstrong became so close. Lee proffers an analogy to account for Milton Mezzrow and to illustrate Mezz’s significance to Louis Armstrong and to American jazz. Lee explains that the expression, “the real McCoy”, was coined to describe the bathtub gin cooked up by a guy named Bill McCoy during prohibition. His liquor was so highly regarded that imbibers began referring to it as “the real McCoy”. Lee asserts that Mezzrow was to cannabis what McCoy was to prohibition alcohol: if you obtained herb from Mezz, you had obtained “the real McCoy”…or in this case, the real Mezz.
Mezz was born in Chicago a couple of years before Armstrong and spent some of his childhood in reform school. Reform school is where Mezz met and befriended many young African-American musicians. He became so attached to his new friends that he wanted to renounce his whiteness and become one of them, which he began in earnest by learning to play jazz clarinet. Once he was out of reform school, Mezz began both smoking cannabis and playing music with his new friends. Mezz believed that being high facilitated better playing, writing in his autobiography that cannabis allowed him to:
…see things in a wonderful, soothing, easy-going new light. All of a sudden, the world is stripped of its dirty gray shrouds and becomes one big bellyful of giggles, a special laugh, bathed in brilliant, sparkling colors that hits you like a heat wave… You can’t get enough of anything – you want to gobble up the whole goddamned universe just for an appetizer.
After the stock market crash in 1929, Mezz moved to Harlem. He had connections there and soon began acquiring high-grade Mexican cannabis to roll into joints and sell to his fellow jazz musicians for ten cents each. Mezz became so popular in Harlem for his potent reefers that he acquired a number of nicknames including “the Reefer King,” “The Philosopher,” “the Man with the Jive,” “the Link Between the Races,” “the Man that Hipped the World,” and “Pop’s Boy”. The last of these pseudonyms was a reference to Mezz’s close relationship with Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong had an appetite for marijuana and used it often. Because Armstrong spent so much time in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, it was no surprise he connected with Mezz, who became Armstrong’s main supplier. Lee points out in Smoke Signals that, “As Armstrong’s principal supplier…Mezz had almost unlimited access to his hero at a time when Satchmo was at the height of his creative powers.” Satchmo, as Louis was affectionately known, began referring to cannabis as “the Mezz”, which became the preferred local slang for herb, while a fat blunt from Mezz was commonly referred to as a “Mezzerola”. In fact, the Mezz had become so closely associated with the positive feelings the locals had about marijuana that the term “Mezz” became a proxy for “anything that was ‘supremely good’ or ‘genuine,’ especially when referring to kind bud. Armstrong was such a dedicated customer that he would send Mezz letters from the road, asking him to send more “’Lo Zee Rose’ and ‘Orchestrations’”, both pseudonyms for top shelf ganja.
The Mezz continued to play jazz music throughout his life and remained a fixture on the scene. He was fortunate to have been in the recording studio when Satchmo laid down the track “Hobo, You Can’t Ride this Train”, on which Mezz played the train bell heard at the beginning of the song. It was a paean to the dejected and dispossessed victims of the Great Depression. One of the reasons that cannabis became such a popular component of the of jazz scene in the 1920s and 1930s was because of it’s relatively low cost and wide availability. Several jazz songs were written in homage to the hardy and heady plant, with many of these songs reflecting the feel of a marijuana high (probably because the songs were written under the influence). These musicians and songwriters were paying tribute to Mezz, who’s herbal remedies inspired “looser, springier rhythms” in songs comprising a jazz subgenre called “viper music”. Lee notes, ’If You’re A Viper,’ written by Rosetta Howard and recorded by Stuff Smith, Fats Waller, and others, began with this frolicsome ditty: Dreamed about a reefer five foot long / The mighty Mezz, but not too strong.”
Smoking cannabis wasn’t just an emotional escape for Depression-era jazzers, or a substitute for prohibited alcohol. On the contrary, according to Lee, it was a “revelation” to young jazz musicians of the time, who began experimenting with the fixed musical forms they had inherited, creating a “cutting-edge sound.” Marijuana also became associated with jazz personality and identity, and, along with jive talk, helped create solidarity amongst the jazz insiders. These vipers, the marijuana puffing jazz musicians who played “viper music”, were described by Mezz as being “on another plane in another sphere compared to the musicians who were bottle babies, always hitting the jug and then coming up brawling after they got loaded. We liked things to be easy and relaxed, mellow and mild, not loud or loutish…” Mezz observed and noted the incredible amount of cannabis being consumed openly by performers at Harlem’s legendary Lafayette Theater, with some in the audience partaking, too. This phenomenon would repeat itself in jazz clubs around the United States, where more and more crowds were integrated with people of different races, all coming together to get a little high and a little mellow while music filled their senses. Cannabis, along with jazz, was breaking through barriers of race and class and bringing people together in a way they hadn’t been able to in conventional society.
Mezz’s glorious run came to an end in 1940 when he was caught with sixty joints on his way in to a jazz club and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on Riker’s Island. After serving his time, Mezz followed other great American jazz performers and moved to France, living in Paris for the rest of his life. Mezz the mensch would be remembered by those who’d lived through that wild jazz age “as ‘that funny refer man’ who palled around with the legendary Louis Armstrong.”
Postscript: The Mezz passed away about 45 years ago, but his spirit lives on in today’s American cannabis revolution. There is a company in Denver, Colorado called “Mezz Brands” who define themselves as “a cutting-edge lifestyle company leading the next wave of cannabis culture.” Mezz Brands is on social media and on the web: https://www.mezzbrands.com/ & @mezzbrands