Son of Mezz Mezzrow Finds His Father’s Legacy Lives in a Jazz Club in the Village
Spike Wilner stepped in front of the crowd at Mezzrow, a Greenwich Village jazz club he opened in September, and introduced a bearded man sitting against the wall as the son of the jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, for whom Mr. Wilner named the club.
For the son, Milton Mesirow, 79, it was his first visit to the club, and he had just met Mr. Wilner minutes earlier.
Mr. Mesirow, who said he is Mr. Mezzrow’s only child, had shown up on a recent weeknight to enjoy some music but also because he was curious about this club that had opened without his knowledge.
Mr. Wilner had not asked whether anyone owned the rights to Mr. Mezzrow’s name and seemed relieved that their conversation earlier in the evening had gone amiably.
“We’re very grateful to him for not suing us,” Mr. Wilner joked to the crowd, prompting one member of the audience to respond, “He’s just waiting for you to get off the ground.”
The long, narrow grotto-style club seems successful already, and Mr. Mesirow appeared impressed as he looked at the walls adorned with photos and memorabilia about his father.
There was a framed poster-size caricature of Mr. Mezzrow hanging above a Steinway piano and an old copy of the jazzman’s colorful autobiography, “Really the Blues,” displayed on something of a candlelit Buddhist altar, an indication of the reverence that Mr. Wilner, a Buddhist, displays for Mr. Mezzrow’s life and legacy.
Mr. Mezzrow, who performed mostly from the 1930s through the ’50s and died in 1972, came from a Jewish family in Chicago — born Milton Mesirow — but sympathized so fully with the African-American experience that he came to identify with it himself.
He was known for embracing African-American culture and for playing with great black musicians like Sidney Bechet and organizing and financing record sessions with them. He also became well known as a dealer and proponent of marijuana, with “mezz” or “mezzrow” becoming slang for a marijuana joint in the era when he was performing.
His wife, Johnnie Mae Mezzrow, who was black, died several years before her husband. They lived with their son for years in Harlem, said Mr. Mesirow, who is known widely as Mezz Jr. and lives in Warwick, N.Y.
After hearing about the club from a neighbor, Jim Eigo, who is a jazz publicist, Mr. Mesirow drove to the club, which is on West 10th Street, across Seventh Avenue South from Smalls Jazz Club, which Mr. Wilner also runs.
Mr. Mesirow and his partner, Gwen Schaffer, an artist, sat near the bandstand as Bob Dorough, a pianist, performed.
Mr. Wilner came over and told Mr. Mesirow that he chose his father as the theme for the club because “I felt he was a symbol” and that he felt a kinship with him as “a Jewish man who embraced African-American culture and art form.”
He said he admired Mr. Mezzrow’s playing, his autobiography and his views on an array of topics such as marijuana and interracial marriage.
In Harlem, Mr. Mezzrow indulged his desire to live as a black jazz musician, “hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can,” as he wrote in the book.
Once, after being arrested for selling marijuana, Mr. Mezzrow insisted on being placed in the segregated jail’s section for blacks.
“He was listed as Negro on his draft card” in World War II, said Mr. Mesirow, who grew up largely in New York City and later moved to Paris to be with his father, whose “base was the nearest hotel.”
Mr. Mesirow said he became a jazz drummer and “played with some of the greats, but I saw it wasn’t going to pay my dinner bill.”
Mr. Mesirow said he met Ms. Schaffer at a Paris jazz club in 1961 and she told him she had read his father’s book. They now make custom illustrations of collectible cars for T-shirts. He still holds out hope for a film based on his father’s autobiography.
“It’s great literature,” Mr. Wilner told Mr. Mesirow, adding that the book deals with universal themes like “the blues, what every human suffers through.”
Mr. Mesirow said he was “honored” the club bore his father’s name. But he said he would still explore whether he had any legal rights to the name.
“I’d have to look into the legality of the name, because remember, Mezzrow was technically his pen name,” he said.
As for his own racial identification, Mr. Mesirow said that because of his light skin, he is sometimes taken for a white man, but that he had also experienced racism while living in predominantly white areas.
“I’m black — you can’t get away from it,” he said. “In the South they used to say if you’re one-tenth black, you’re black,” he said.
His religious affiliation, he said, is more straightforward.
“My father put me in a shul, and my mother’s side tried to make me a Baptist,” he said. “So when I’m asked what my religion is, I just say ‘jazz.’ ”
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