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Saturday, October 31, 2020

RAW cites Mezz Mezzrow

Mezz Mezzrow in 1946 (public domain photo)

Chapter Four of Starseed Signals, "Beyond the Conditioned Reflex," had some surprises for me, among them a reference to jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow:

"An example of sensory consciousness can be found in jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues, in which he tells of a fire in a building where he and some friends were smoking the weed. While everybody else fled, the pot-heads calmly discussed the beauty of the spectacle, the humerous rush of the non-stoned people, and the details of when they should make their own exit. (They did get out alive ....)"

Mezz Mezzrow (1899-1972), apparently not well-remembered these days, was an interesting character.  A white jazz musician, he (according to Wikipedia) decided from the moment he heard jazz he "was going to be a Negro musician, hipping [teaching] the world about the blues the way only Negroes can." He married a black woman, moved to Harlem and, when he was jailed for marijuana possession with intent to distribute he insisted on being moved to the section of the jail housing black prisoners. He was well known for selling marijuana and Louis Armstrong was one of his customers.

Mezzrow was devoted to Dixieland style traditional jazz (he apparently did not embrace later developments such as bebop) and made many recordings, although apparently opinion is divided about his merits as a clarinet player. Some of his recordings are available on Freegal, the library music streaming service, and I have been listening to some of the tracks, and they sound OK to me. 

RAW's implied endorsement of his memoir, Really the Blues, co-written with Bernard Wolfe, makes me want to read it; it seems interesting, judging from the reviews I've seen. 

Later in Starseed, Wilson writes, "The first pot-smoker I ever knew was a black jazz musician who was my friend in the late 1950s" and shares an anecdote from the musician about what smoking pot is like. Whenever I see RAW mentioning his black jazz musician friend, I always wonder if it's a name I would recognize. 

Bonus hipster cultural note 

Diane di Prima in 2004 (Creative Commons photo)

Poet Diane di Prima, a poet originally associated with the Beats, has died; you can read the New York Times obituary or the Washington Post obit.

While I cannot prove that Robert Anton Wilson knew or read di Prima, they overlap culturally in all sorts of ways. RAW certainly was familiar with Beat writers. Di Prima lived for awhile at Timothy Leary's establishment at Millbrook. She also spent much of her life in San Francisco, which in fact is where she died. 

And still, the name nagged at me. Where else had I seen it?

Another synchronicity: After I spilled tea Friday night, my wife gave me something that had been sitting for months on a kitchen chair. It was a holiday card sent to me by Christian Greer, and it had this poem by di Prima:


As soon as we submit
to a system based on causality, linear time
we submit, again, to the old values, plunge again
into slavery. Be strong. We have the right to make
the universe we dream. No need to fear "science"
apology for things as they are, ALL POWER
TO JOY, which will remake the world. 

1 comment:

Jesse said...

I always associate Wilson with di Prima, because the library where I first read Wilson's articles for FACT had those bound volumes shelved near the bound volumes of THE FLOATING BEAR, which di Prima edited with the man then known as LeRoi Jones. So I read both of them in the same spot of the stacks.

FWIW: Wilson was a fan of William Burroughs' routine "Roosevelt After Inauguration," and "Roosevelt After Inauguration" was published in THE FLOATING BEAR. But that wasn't the only place where it appeared, so he didn't necessarily read it there.