Jazz Culture Crosses Over: Mezz Mezzrow and Anita O'Day

Really the Blues is one of the most evocative memoirs in American literature. Mezz Mezzrow has a conversion experience to jazz as his religion and he describes how New Orleans jazz hit he and his Chicago friends "like the millennium." A middle-class Jewish-American kid from Chicago, Mezzrow rejects his family's values and ethnic culture, preferring the excitement of the streets, speakeasies, and black-and-tan night clubs during Prohibition. Mezzrow's narrative voice is singular and compelling — that of a streetwise gangster raconteur — and his life story is ably organized by jazz critic and writer, Bernard Wolfe.

Really the Blues was also the first respectful analysis of African-American music and culture. Mezzrow's admiration for Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as American artists working within a vernacular African-American tradition had little precedent across the color line in 1946. He befriended the first generation of New Orleans musicians who moved to Chicago in the 1920s, including Louis Armstrong, Sidney de Paris and others - and convinced his friends they needed to apprentice with the African-American musicians who invented jazz. In this fashion, he mentored a generation of white jazz musicians, including drummers Gene Krupa and Davey Tough, and indirectly Benny Goodman and Eddie Condon. Really the Blues itself influenced another generation of jazz enthusiasts: Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac read the memoir standing up in the Columbia University bookstore and it was almost certainly an influence on the Beats' writing and thinking about jazz.

As the star jazz vocalist for Gene Krupa's big band in the early 1940s, O'Day's streetwise style shifted the idea of the "girl singer" to the postwar "hip chick." She was a high-profile female cultural rebel in the postwar era. As one reporter wrote in 1946, “Anita…says what she thinks, wears what she pleases, and behaves as she prefers to behave." She rebelled against gender norms by refusing to wear frilly dresses that accentuated a soft femininity. Instead, she created a professional look for women: a black sports jacket and short skirt. She transgressed the color line by singing with and next to trumpeter Roy Eldridge, angering racists across the country. O'Day admired Billie Holiday and shared her weaknesses for hard drugs and difficult relationships. She spent two stints in prison for marijuana and heroin possession; she often complained that audiences came out as much to see the jailbird as the jazz singer. She stole the show at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival with her slow, iconic version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," as featured in the famous documentary, Jazz On A Summer's Day (1960). A generation later, she published High Times, Hard Times, a frank memoir of jazz and addiction.