On New Year’s Day of 1947, not long after Random House published Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir, Really the Blues, there took place at Town Hall a kind of musical-revue version of his life. “Mr. Mezzrow himself served as the narrator,” reported The New York Times the following day. “He told how he had encountered different jazz players in different places. Then the curtains opened and instrumentalists or singers acted the parts of the performers mentioned, performing in the styles of the originals.”

Mezzrow was an early traditionalist: His love for jazz centered on New Orleans–derived music and swing, and stopped before bebop, then a current language. He was a white jazz musician who played on some excellent records (including some sessions organized in late 1938 and early 1939 by the jazz critic Hugues Panassié, led variously by Mezzrow or the trumpeters Tommy Ladnier and Frankie Newton, and described in this book’s appendix 3); had a rigorous and principled feeling for the blues; followed a lifelong yearning to “be a musician, a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can”—yet was generally overshadowed, talent-wise, by his peers.

At Town Hall, the pianist Sammy Price played the role of Tony Jackson, who shows up early in the book. Jackson was a New Orleans–born musician who moved to Chicago, Mezzrow’s town, and died not long after the teenage Mezzrow saw him play at the Pekin Inn; he never recorded. And so Mezzrow’s eyewitness account of him, however stylized, remains valuable. (The passage uses its jive mode to identify Jackson as “one of the greatest blues piano players that ever pounded a joybox,” and its psycho-moralizing mode to hear in Jackson’s songs “the Negro’s real artistry with his prose, and the clean way he looks at sex, while all the white songs that ever came out of whorehouses don’t have anything but a vulgar slant and an obscene idiom.”) The singer Coot Grant played the role of Bessie Smith, whom Mezzrow admired greatly. A young sextet, including Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, performed as the Scarsdale High School Gang—referring to the group of young white Chicago musicians in the 1920s known as the Austin High School Gang, to which the slightly older Mezzrow had a bootleg-liquor-sharing and semimentoring relationship. Sidney Bechet played Sidney Bechet. Mezzrow played docent, but certainly not star soloist: The Times writer didn’t weigh in on his talent, and only noted that he “joined some of the sessions as a clarinetist.”

“Throughout the program Mr. Mezzrow kept insisting that the performances were authentic jazz,” the Times writer reported. “Other jazz notables, he implied, had gone ‘to the other side.’” Mezzrow knew about “going to the other side,” in another sense. Was there a wink there? Was the whole thing a giant wink?

In Really the Blues, Mezzrow draws a circle around the idea of the real, but as he does so he stands outside of the circle, looking in. Mezzrow was conveying to the Town Hall audience that Bechet was a walking principle of authenticity, and that his own career had been all about staying close to such principles. He understood “real” jazz as fairly serious and simple, and as Southern black expression—not to be confused with “modern” and East Coast tendencies, which he mostly saw as corruptive. (Type the words “real” and “modern” into a search engine for this book, and you will find an X-ray image of Mezzrow’s tastes—shaped and limited, surely, by a mixture of what he had witnessed, what he was technically capable of playing, and how he might have felt his livelihood and identity threatened.)

Mezzrow was a scold with his feet slightly off the ground, someone who could transmit real awe and inspiration about the music he loved— who could explain why jazz is not just an arrangement of notes but a way of looking at the world—but who also liked to remind his juniors that they probably didn’t know what real music was. He often sounded something like a critic, and the opinions of critics mattered to Mezzrow at the time of this book: particularly those of Panassié and Ernest Borneman, both of whom gave him powerful votes of confidence. One imagines he would not have been pleased by the judgment of Nat Hentoff, who described him in 1953 as “so consistently out of tune that he may have invented a new scale system,” or Whitney Balliett, who in 1977 called him “abysmal,” or Gunther Schuller, who in 1989 called him “inept.” (The tides may yet turn the other way. In his 1997 book American Pop, Allen Lowe, who picks a good fight, has called him “inconsistent but sometimes very decent,” and praised his 1934 “Sendin’ the Vipers” and 1937“Wailing Blues” for their “very contemporary-sounding integration of younger and older musicians and styles.”)

Really the Blues, co-written with Bernard Wolfe, wasn’t only a story about a white man’s cultural fascination for the South Side or uptown. Nor was it only a story about the indignities of black life written for a white audience. It was that, plus Mezzrow’s imprisonment, musical man-crushes, bravery, principled judgment, ambition, naïveté, semiredemption, and transformation, though what kind of transformation remains an interesting question.

It took on a bit of the resonance of a myth, or an epic. The jacket copy for the first Random House edition in 1946 calls it “an odd Odyssey,” and implies a trip to the underworld, “packed with the raw excitement you get from any surreptitious glimpse of things never meant to be seen.” For Mezzrow, the wine-dark sea was what he called “the no-man’s-land between the races.” In the book’s final pages, through the quoted voice of Wolfe—it is a scene in which Wolfe pitches the story to its author—the book is described as “a real American success story, upside down: Horatio Alger standing on his head.”

Mezzrow does travel a long way. Here you see a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist of middling talent who comes to associate—musically or socially—with some of the greatest artists America ever produced, including Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. You also see a middle-class Jewish man who winds up selling excellent marijuana near an important Harlem crossroads—by the Tree of Hope, near what is now the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 131st Street. (What was Mezzrow’s background? “My family was as respectable as Sunday morning, loaded with doctors, lawyers, dentists and pharmacists,” he writes.) As one of Armstrong’s intimates and as the purveyor of good supply, he feels celebrated; he explains that he came to be known by such names as “the White Mayor of Harlem” and “the Link between the Races.” (“I don’t mean to boast,” he adds, with an edge of insecurity, “that’s what the cats really called me, at different times. I did become a kind of link between the races there.”)

Late in the book he is arrested on misdemeanor charges, for carrying sixty joints, and sentenced to three years at Rikers Island for suspicion of selling. Realizing in the receiving room of the segregated prison that his fellow white prisoners would be particularly unsavory, he has a revelation:

"I knew that colored cons were different; almost any colored guy can land in jail, not just the soulless zombies who have already shriveled up and died inside and are just postponing their date with the undertaker’s icebox. Some of the finest, most highspirited guys of the race landed in jail because of their conditions of life, not because they were rotted and maggot-eaten inside."

He decides to tell the prison deputy that he is “colored, even if I don’t look it.” And he is moved to a black cellblock. Later in the book he makes one more concrete reference to his “blackness”: “I only hope they spell my name right in Who’s Who, and get the dates of my prison record straight, and don’t forget to say ‘Race, Negro.’”

That is a semi-lighthearted comment, and the extent of its lightheartedness is the measure by which Really the Blues has always been a mysterious book. Most memoirists enter a complicated relationship with the truth—especially when they are not household names, and when the key events they describe are not a matter of public record. They are creating a narrative from their own perspective, in support of their own thesis; accordingly they spotlight or leave out or elide. The reader doesn’t want to be lied to outright. (The more dubious assertions here—among them that Mezzrow had a role in the invention of the term “jam session,” and that he was directly responsible for the popularity of Armstrong’s records in Harlem—feel like faults in the book’s overall conceit.) But the reader probably expects some rearrangement of the verifiable truth. In Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow seems to be rearranging on two levels: in a literary way and in a personal-identity way.

Mezzrow knew the lay of the no-man’s-land. Just as he probably knew that the clerks of history would get some things wrong about him—the headline of his Times obituary in 1972 called him “a Titan of Jazz”—he surely knew that they would get his whiteness right. Mezzrow loved jazz, loved black culture, eventually loved and married a black woman. But his life outside of prison, and all his future prospects, depended on his being white. Without his whiteness he wouldn’t be the Link.

He was jeered, especially by musicians, for the size of his ego in relation to the size of his talent. (Although nobody questioned his passion, and he put it out there. Dan Morgenstern, the jazz historian, remembers seeing Mezzrow perform in the late 1940s; he told me that Mezzrow, dressed in a conservative blue suit “with vest and watch chain yet,” played a solo on “Black and Blue” that lasted around fifteen minutes.) But he never received Rachel Dolezal–level opprobrium after Really the Blues, probably because in the book he doesn’t try to obscure his background for the reader, and also, possibly, because he was a man.

Shortly after the publication of Really the Blues, Wolfe wrote an essay called “Ecstatic in Blackface: The Negro as a Song-and-Dance Man.” In it, he argued that the “real” or “authentic” black entertainer, fetishized for purity and directness of expression, is partly a projection of the white fan. “By a devious interracial irony,” he wrote, “the ‘creative’ Negro, far from being his own spontaneous self, may actually be dramatizing the white man’s image of the ‘spontaneous’ Negro ‘as he really is.’” Hold that up next to Mezzrow’s valorization in Really the Blues of the black man’s effortless ecstasy, or ecstatic effortlessness. Such as: “His laughter was real and from way down inside. His whole manner and bearing was simple and natural.”

When we talk about Mezzrow’s double levels, we are also talking about those of his co-writer. Wolfe was a broad and ambitious writer: He’d been Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico in the 1930s and wrote The Great Prince Died, a novel based on the experience; he later wrote the futuristicdystopian fiction Limbo, admired by J.G. Ballard and Jonathan Lethem. Was he protecting Mezzrow by not letting on the extent of his passing? Or was he allowing Mezzrow to show his insecurities as phenotypes of the committed white jazz sympathizer? Usually co-writers are celebrators or facilitators of the author. Was Wolfe, who had a degree in psychology from Yale, acting as a kind of analyst of the author?

It is well-understood now that Mezzrow’s attitudes were, as they say, “problematic.” (Gayle Wald’s essay “Mezz Mezzrow and the Voluntary Negro Blues” lays out the problems particularly well.) And to some degree it was understood then, too. In a 1947 review of the book in Commentary, Kurt List wrote: “Obviously, for all the changes he has made in his life, Mezzrow still has the white man’s concept of the Negro.” Still, the book’s long appeal must be due to the great complexity in how he expresses that concept—his pathos, his psychologizing, his ebullience. That, and for its articulate memories of early jazz in Chicago and New York, quoting song lyrics, naming names, describing the culture around the music with fascination.

Not too much later, during the 1950s, Bechet narrated his own, much less sensational book, Treat It Gentle. He described Mezzrow this way:

"Mezzrow, he’d had this rage of being King of Harlem for a while and that was wearing out some. He began to see that something different would have to be tried. He’s played some nice things and he’s put out some good records—he played, for example, on the date when we made Really the Blues, and he and I were to put out some records together later which were good. You see, he had a feeling for what he was doing; he had a way of working around what was being done."

That’s just it. Mezzrow oriented himself toward the center of the center, at the Harlem crossroads. But in one way or another, he remained on the outside.

This introduction appears in a new edition of Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, published by New York Review Books. Copyright © 2016 Ben Ratliff. Used here with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.