Mezz Mezzrow was the first but hardly the last Jewish kid who loved black American music so much that he wanted to be black. In his own mind, and in the records of the New York State prison system, Mezzrow (born Milton Mesirow) actually achieved his goal, while also becoming jazz titan Louis Armstrong’s favorite pot dealer and occasional side-man. You can draw a straight line from Mezzrow’s deep emotional connection to jazz and the people who made it to Norman Mailer’s stoned psychoanalytic riff about the “White Negro” (a straight-up rip-off of Mezzrow’s book layered over with Mailer’s first-generation, crypto-racist tough-guy, Harvard-grad-in-Greenwich-Village bullshit) to every Jewish kid from Brooklyn including me and my brother and Adam Yauch who dreamed of jumping onstage with Spoonie Gee and DJ Easy Lee. The desire to connect to the black experience in America defined the 20th-century Jewish experience in America in countless ways. And, Spike Lee to the contrary, the most enduring of those channels was the Jewish love for black music, because it came from love and not from pity or piety or self-serving moral uplift.
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, published by Seuil.