Portraits of America #5 : The Jazz Player of Chicago


In my last 5 Rhythms dance workshop in Philadelphia, I met π, a man born in 1942. We paired up on an exercise where we had to tell each other our father’s life story.

π‘s father had the most extraordinary existence and he gave me the authorization to share it here.

His name was Harvey Brown. He was born in Chicago somewhere in the 1910s in a family where all the men were alcoholic. He therefore had to bring financial support to the household from an early age. This was the era of the birth of jazz. Harvey began to play music in the first jazz clubs of Chicago with his little brother who was going blind. He soon had to be his brother’s protector on top of being a family breadwinner.

To a background of Prohibition and Al Capone atmosphere, Harvey got involved in peripheral activities with the mafia, wiped floors in a printing shop where they were forging notes.

Harvey was a very charismatic man, handsome, clever, narcissistic, a womanizer. He could get whatever he wanted. He was also an entrepreneur who could make everything with his hands. He was some kind of self-taught prodigy. He wasn’t given the chance to study so he read all the volumes of the Encyclopædia Universalis to gain knowledge. He learned drawing and magic by himself and used to perform magic tricks during the intermission of his jazz concerts. His magic skills enhanced his charisma and hypnotic aura and helped him obtain what he was aiming for.

But the ghosts of alcoholism were chasing him. When π was about two years old, his mother threatened his father to divorce him if he didn’t stop drinking. Harvey remained sober till the early teenage of his son and was a good father.

He was caught by his lineage demons after that, and drinking led him to ruin. π didn’t get into detail when telling me how things ended. His admiration for his father still sounded intact despite the fall.

Harvey left three boxes of souvenirs to his children: one for his jazz player career, one for his magician career, and one for his business career.

Episode #2 – Love Letter To New Orleans

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I am already sinking in the tropical & jazzy mood of New Orleans. I am writing this in a café called ‘Fleur de Lis’ (pronounce ‘fleu de lee’) in the French quarter. New Orleans (aka NoLa) is ‘fleu de lee’ all the way. Much more than in Québec which also has it as a symbol. But the New Orleanians are so proud of it that they tend to overuse it. The huge blonde black lady working at the supermarket had it tattooed on her hand, close to her 2-inch fake glitter nails. I saw a gangsta rap style guy wearing a chain of golden fleu de lee. Awesome. It is also on all the trash cans of the city. I was explaining to my host that the fleu de lee is the symbol of the Kings of France, and that back in Europe we put it on castles, old weapons, heraldic signs and generally royal stuff. That is what America is about. Putting the European royal symbols on trash cans. I really hope that some day England has the faces of the royal family on the public bins.

New Orleans is a trade port nesting in a curve of the Mississippi river, so it has a confusing vibe for so many influences have been meeting for two and a half centuries. A lot of the names are French, especially in the historical French quarter, but they butcher the pronounciation in such way that it is incomprehensible to a native French speaker. “Chartres” street is pronounced “Chatter”, “Faubourg” Wine bar I haven’t managed to reproduce the sound of the American version just yet. It is becoming a running gag when I say the names the original way. I like their way much better.

The French and Spanish successively ruled the city in the 18th century so there is a strong catholic twist to it, mixed with the voodoo of the first African slaves. I love the concept of Catholic voodoo. When walking the streets, I get hit by images and memories of a lot of contradictory places: latin America for the Spanish architecture, San Francisco for the colourful wooden houses and bougainvillea, the midwest for its sticky humid aspect and funny electric wires network. And sometimes, very furtively, France. Bottom line is: it is a quite unique spot of earth.

New Orleans is contradiction. New Orleans is oxymoron. Is that why I love it so much?

It is also damn queer. And there is a strong burlesque tradition, “chic brothel” type. The guys told me of an erotic Beat Generation poetry reading that recently took place. They have the most unusual arty events, mixing together stuff that I would never think of. Just like the food menu in the restaurants. You have “Tomato Mozzarella” right above “Fried Alligator”. Oh My God. I never expected to fit in like that.

The city is built on sand under the level of the river – that’s why they regularly get in trouble with the elements. Because of the nature of its soil, the roots of the trees spread horizontally rather than vertically and it has as an effect to fuck up all the sidewalks. They are uneven and broken into pieces, creating an arty, but nevertheless trippy effect. It definitely adds to the uniqueness of the streets.

Last night I was walking in the neighborhood with the guys and I saw a sign on one of the doors. It was a big cross with 4 different numbers (see picture). κ² explained me that this is a remnant of Katrina. The rescue squads entered all the houses after the hurricane and marked each house with a cross stating: the day they got in (top number), the squad number (left), the number of dead bodies found (bottom) and the numbers of dead animals found (right). This is the only tangible sign of Katrina I’ve seen so far.

The Mississippi River is three blocks down where I am sitting now and it makes me lazy, sticky and dreamy. The theme of the Tom Sawyer cartoon is stuck in my head. I used to watch it as a kid. “Tom Sawyer, c’est l’Amérique, Pour tous ceux qui aiment la liberté, Il est né sur les bords du fleuve Mississippi…” Has it influenced my imagination as I grew up and started craving for freedom?

I sat near the Saint Louis Cathedral to listen to some big jazz band. Jazz music everywhere is not a legend. I don’t know if the locals find it overrated? There’s music in every corner, and sometimes your ears are competing to catch all the different sources of music in one spot.

I walked along the Mississippi river earlier, as the sun was going down. There was a huge steam boat covered in colourful flags and playing some vintagy classic songs with its siren. α called me from New York on my American number, just because she can call me just like whilst I am in the country.

“I am walking home along the Mississippi river!!!” I told her when I picked up. What a fabulous thing to say.

New Orleans is fabulousness all the way.