High Times Greats: Milton “The Mezz” Mesirow

The hep cat who turned on 1930s jazz.
High Times Greats: The Mezz
High Times

Albert Goldman’s profile of “Harlem’s white jive-talking reefer man,” Milton “The Mezz” Mesirow (1899 – 1972), appeared in the November, 1977 issue of High Times. We’re republishing it below on the occasion of the Mezz’s birthday November 9.

It’s a wise child that knows its own father. It’s a dumb generation that not only doesn’t know its real fathers but acts as if it didn’t have any fathers—just avatars, reincarnations, previous existences and all that mystic bullshit. Frankly, it’s always pissed me off, pious soul that I am, to think that this generation, which stands so obviously on the shoulders of the past, is so stupid and arrogant as to believe that it is self-created or born out of the hollow breath of some holy man in Benares or some dreadlock in Jamaica or some bald old beat poet suffering from verbal diarrhea and delusions of saintliness.

The fact is that the whole counterculture was not so much invented as discovered by the heroes of the Sixties. The people who created most of it—and paid the price for doing so—lived long before the days of Dylan. Not only were they the Columbuses of this brave new world, they were often the ones who lived it the hardest, dug it the fullest and left the most beautiful, imperishable records of what it’s all about.

No West Coast hippie high on Sunshine ever had drug dreams that could cap the visions of Thomas De Quincey; no rock musician ever played harder—in every sense of the word—than Charlie Parker; no camp follower of Janis Joplin—or even Janis herself—could match the biggest, toughest, soulfulest momma of them all, Bessie Smith. It’s a wise child that knows its own father—and a wise generation that knows its progenitors.

Take the whole business of dope smoking and dope dealing and the culture of marijuana. Where did it all begin? Who was the pioneer, the prophet, the Johnny Appleseed of weed? Well, he sure wasn’t some unheard-of, tenth-rate, nineteenth-century writer like Fitz Hugh Ludlow or some obscure migrant with a can of grefa in his kicks or even a spivey-looking playground pusher out of the pulp fiction fantasies of the late but unlamented Harry Jacob Anslinger.

No, my dears, your father was a wonderful man, a real American: He was born of immigrant Jewish parents in Chicago, as he always liked to say, “on a windy night in 1899, along with the twentieth century.” He grew up in a tough ghetto, working around the edges of the Prohibition-era rackets, needling beer for Al Capone and playing jazz saxophone in Syndicate road houses. He fell so madly in love with black people that he became the first white Negro; he settled in Harlem in the early Thirties, where he divorced his white wife to marry a black woman and beget a black baby. He got so hooked on opium that for four years he did nothing but lie inside a tenement coal bin smoking hop and talking trash. Finally, he pulled himself together again and wrote the single most important book about the counterculture—Really the Blues. Yes, my dears, your father was a wonderful man. His name? Milton Mezzrow, better known as the Mezz.

Now, how did the Mezz come to dope, and how did he bring dope to America? To answer this question you have to wind your mind back to the Roaring Twenties, when plenty of Americans, from tough purple-shirted gangsters in Detroit to little old lacy ladies in Dubuque, were fucking around with all sorts of heavy drugs, ranging from opium and heroin to cocaine and chloral hydrate. About the only drug then in existence that Americans hadn’t heard about or tasted was marijuana. “Maggies,” as it was then called, was perfectly legal; but if you didn’t have a pipeline; to Storyville, the old red-light district in New Orleans, you couldn’t buy a stick of gauge for love or money. “Muta,” or “Rosa Maria” as it was called down on the Texas border, was confined to two tiny elements in the population; Mexicans and the black or creole jazzmen of New Orleans. It might have taken many more years for the stuff to find its way north if the navy hadn’t closed down Storyville during World War I, driving jazz and all its joyous ways up the Mississippi to Chicago, and thus planting dope right in the heartland of America.

Poppa Mezz first got turned on to weed in the men’s room of a jazz joint outside Chicago. A dude handed him a cigarette rolled in brown, wheatstraw paper and told him: “You got to hold that muggle so it barely touches your lips, see, then draw in air around it. Say tfff, tfff, only breathe in when you say it. Then don’t blow it out right away, you got to give that stuff a chance.” The Mezz gave it a chance; he smoked that fat joint right down to the butt. Then he went back on the bandstand. What happened next is not only interesting but important, for it explains why marijuana was eventually adopted by the great majority of jazz musicians.

“The first thing I noticed,” recalled Mezz, “was that I began to hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head, but I couldn’t hear much of the band in back of me, although I knew they were there. All the other instruments sounded like they were way off in the distance; I got the same sensation you’d get if you stuffed your ears with cotton and talked out loud. Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip, and my head buzzed like a loudspeaker. I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into my phrases—I was really coming on.”

“All the notes came easing out of my horn like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort. With loaded horn I could take all the fist-swinging, evil things in the world and bring them together in perfect harmony, spreading peace and joy and relaxation to keyed-up, punchy people everywhere.” Being an enthusiastic, ebullient, upbeat personality, the Mezz loved dope for the way it enhanced his senses, mellowed his mood and tickled his well-developed sense of humor. His description of the basic effects of dope is still as fresh today as when it was dictated 30 years ago:

“It’s a funny thing about marijuana—when you first begin smoking it you see things in a wonderful, soothing, easygoing 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 hit you like a heat-wave. All your pores open like funnels, your nerve ends stretch their mouths wide, hungry and thirsty for new sights and sounds and sensations; and every sensation, when it comes, is the most exciting one you’ve ever had.”

Mezz split from Chicago when the local jazz scene began to fade as a result of the migration of musicians to New York, which was destined to become the jazz capital of the world. Finding himself in Harlem in the year 1930 with nothing in his pockets but some Prince Albert cans or Diamond Match boxes filled with grefa from his Mexican connection in Chicago (“Little Pasquale used to sell his muggles six for a dollar but he gave us a cut-rate price, a tobacco tin full-up with muta for two dollars, or a Diamond matchbox full for four or five”), the Mezz fell into the habit of mixing business with pleasure by pushing a little gauge. To appreciate the importance of this act, you have to understand what a creative hotbed and social trend-setter Harlem was in the Thirties.

Harlem then was not the heavy ghetto of today: far from it! Harlem was wide open, full to the brim with the joyous new life of the first American blacks ever to feel the sense of complete cultural liberation. The young eager blacks of that era were keen to dig this brave new world up north and to make it ring with black dance, black song, black laughter and, above all, black jazz, the master art of that era, the big beat of that day, the music that did for the Thirties what rock did for the Sixties. It was a rich and yeasty cultural brew that was bubbling off the pavements of Harlem when the Mezz blew in from Chi with his pocket full of high; it was a round-the-clock block party that had its center on a classic bit of turf called the Stroll, or Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132nd Street. All the big names played up there: Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie.

Mezz and his vipers (weed heads) were the tiny seed from which the whole modern dope culture sprang. Mezz was the messiah of marijuana. Characteristically, for this generous and warm-hearted enthusiast, he became a dope dealer less out of a desire to make a few bucks than to turn on all his new friends. His account of how he drifted into dealing shows not only his own good nature, but the childlike naïveté of the first dopers.

“Most of us were getting our tea from some Spanish boys, and one day they showed up with a guy who pushed the stuff in Detroit when I was there. He wasn’t selling it any more, but he put us in touch with another cat who kept coming up from Mexico with real golden-leaf, the best that could be had. As soon as we got some of that Mexican bush we almost blew our tops. Poppa, you never smacked your chops on anything sweeter in all your days of viping. It had such a wonderful smell, and the kick you got was really out of this world. Guys used to say it tasted like chocolate candy, a brand Hershey never even thought of.”

“I laid it on the cats in the Barbeque, and pretty soon all Harlem was after me to light them up. I wasn’t working then and didn’t have much money left to gay-cat with, but I couldn’t refuse to light my friends up. Before I knew it I had to write to our connection for a large supply, because evervbody I knew wanted some.”

“Overnight I was the most popular man in Harlem. On the Corner I was to become known as the Reefer King, the Link between the Races, the Philosopher, the Mezz, Poppa Mezz, Mother Mezz, Pop’s Boy, the White Mayor of Harlem, the Man about Town, the Man that Hipped the World, the Man that Made History, the Man with the Righteous Bush. He who Diggeth the Digger, Father Neptune.”

The respect Mezz garnered on the street was not only due to the quality of his dope: he resisted efforts by big-time gangsters to take over the dealing business in Harlem, as he resisted the efforts of legitimate businesspersons to package the stuff and sell it nationally. He didn’t want dope dealing to become a racket or a high-powered commercial enterprise.

The Mezz’s dealings were pure jazz in action. He dealt right off the top to the hippest cats on the continent. Their slanguage was as slick as the music they loved. When they rapped, they got off just like a jazzman blowing his horn. A typical day in the life of the Mezz saw many cleverly phrased transactions and newly coined words echo among the streets and hangouts of Harlem, a colorful code known only to those colorful enough to use it:

First Cat: Hey there, Poppa Mezz, is you anywhere?

Mezz: Man I’m down with it, stickin’ like a honky.

First Cat: Lay a trey on me, ole man.

Mezz: Got to do it, slot-mouth. (Pointing to a man standing in front of Big John’s gin mill) Gun the snatcher on your left raise—the head mixer laid on a bundle his ways, he’s posin’ back like crime sure pays.

First Cat: Father grab him! I ain’t payin’ him no rabbit. Jim, this jive you’ve got is a gasser. I’m goin’ up to my dommy and dig that new mess Pops laid down. I hear he riffed back on Zackly. Pick you up at the Track when the kitchen mechanics romp.

Second Cat: Hey Mezzie. lay some of that hard-cuttin’ mess on me. I’m short a deuce of blips, but I’ll straighten you later.

Mezz: Righteous, gizz. you’re a poor boy but a good boy—now don’t come up crummy.

Second Cat: Never crummy, chummy. I’m gonna lay a drape under the trey of knockers for Tenth Street, and I’ll be on the scene wearin’ the green.

Third Cat: (Coming up with his chick) Baby this is that powerful man with that good grass that’ll make you trip through the highways and byways like a Maltese kitten. Mezz, this is my new dinner and she’s a solid viper.

Girl: All the chicks is always talkin’ bout you and Pops. Sure it ain’t somethin’ freakish goin’ down ’tween you two? You sure got the ups on us pigeons, we been on a frantic kick tryin’ to divide who’s who. But everybody loves Pops and we know just how your bloodstream’s runnin’.

Fourth Cat: (Coming up with a stronger) Mezz, this here is Sonny Thompson, he one of the regular cats on the Avenue and can lay some iron too. Sonny’s hip from way back and solid can blow some gauge, so lay an ace on us and let us get gay. He been knowin’ Pops for years.

Mezz: Solid man, any stud that’s all right with Pops must really be in there. Hero, pick up Sonny, the climb’s on me.

Sonny: (To his friend) Man, you know one thing? This cat should of been born J.B.. he collars all jive and comes on like a spaginzy. (Turning to Mezz) Boy, is you sure it ain’t some of us in your family way down the line? Boy you’re too much, slay with it, you got to git it.

Fifth Cat: Hey Poppa Mezz! Slickin’?

Mezz: Like the chinaberry trees in Aunt Hagar’s backyard.

Fifth Cat: Lay an ace on me so’s I can elevate myself, and I’ll pick you up on the late watch.

Sixth Cat: (Seeing Mezz hand the reefers to Cat Number Five) Ow, I know I’m gonna get straight now. I know you gonna put me on.

Fifth Cat: Back up boy, forty-five feet. Always lookin’ for a freebie. Jim, why don’t you let up sometime? Hawk’s out here with his axe, and me with this lead sheet on, tryin’ to scuffle up those two’s and fews for uncle so’s I can bail out my full orchestration.

Sixth Cat: Aw, come on and bust your vest, what you goin’ to make out of sportin’ life? You know you took the last chorus with me.

Fifth Cat: Look’s like he got me, Mezz, but this cat wouldn’t feed grass to a horse in a concrete pasture. He’s so tight he wouldn’t buy a pair of shorts for a flea. Man, just look at him, dig that vine all offtime, and his strollers look like he’s ready to jump. This cat’s playin’ ketch-up and I got to tighten his wig. I told it down. Jim (speaking now to Mezz), and I’ll come up with a line two like I said. Come on, Jack, let’s final to my main stash.

These cats had the fastest metaphors in town. To find anything like this lingo, you’d have to page back to the time of Shakespeare, when another illiterate population, the “groundlings,” exhibited a similar relish for playing with words. Indeed, nothing could be more preposterous than treating people with such a witty command of language as “culturally deprived.” The fact of the matter is that these Harlem vipers had a culture that was so potent, so pure, so original and yet so perfectly in tune with the times that it eventually called the tune for all of American society, white and black, down to the conclusion of World War II and the dying of the real Jazz Age.

The mighty Mezz was at once the greatest digger, the greatest chronicler, the greatest celebrator of this culture, as well as being a principal actor on its main stage and contributor of its most characteristic fragrance—the pungent aroma of burning bush. Eventually, however, his dedication to the weed made him the first martyr to the laws that were passed, state by state, in the Thirties, leading up to the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937, which soon stamped out the flame that the Mezz had started and put the man himself behind bars.

Characteristically, the Mezz was not busted for selling dope; but for trying to give it away. In 1940, while entering the back door of a jazz club at the World’s Fair (ironically the club was called “The Gay New Orleans”), Mezz was collared by a plainclothes detective who had been looking for a hard-drug dealer working that particular club. He was frisked and found to be carrying a pocketful of joints—which he had planned to lay on the band. He was indicted under the new federal law, convicted and sentenced to one to three years at Riker’s Island. It wasn’t the first bum rap he had taken, and he served his stretch in fairly congenial surroundings: in a colored cell block and playing in the prison band. But his days of dealing were over.

When he got out of the can, Mezz worked for a while as a record producer (who had put together some now legendary dates with the surviving members of the original New Orleans school) and as a jazz musician. Eventually, he ran into a New York writer and intellectual named Bernard Wolfe who delivered the Mezz his real baby, his classic American autobiography, Really the Blues.

The year that Really the Blues was published, 1946, saw the beginning of the Beat movement, which did as much to put dope into the hands of white America as did the Mezz to put it into the grasp of Black America. Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac—they were all the spiritual sons of the Mezz. Rhapsodes, all of them, chanting it up for a new, ecstatic and totally liberated view of American life, like you get while high on tea.

The Beats passed the joint to the West Coast rockers and they delivered it to the world. Now, finally, in the year 1977, an American president proposes to decriminalize marijuana, precisely 40 years after the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act. The wheel has come full circle. The mission of the Mezz will soon be accomplished. From the cathouse to the White House, America will be capped with a cloud of glory. Now wouldn’t that gas ole Mezz right down to his peg-cuffed pants and alligator-skin shoes? It’s a wise father that knows what’s good for his children.

And what of Poppa Mezz? After so many dope-related offenses, he was finally drummed out of the United States. His last years were spent in Paris—a mecca for black musicians, even today, and not a bad place to blow your last days—where he died in 1972 at the age of 73.

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