Portraits of America #5 : The Jazz Player of Chicago

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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.

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Portraits of America #3 – The Lady Who Loved Cremation

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I went to Saint Louis Cemetery yesterday. It is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, inaugurated in 1789. Some of it looks brand new and a lot of it is crumbling down.

Most of the epitaphs were written in French so I came across a few good stories when the engraving was still visible. For some reason, a lot of the French immigrants buried there were originally from Bordeaux.

Saint Louis Cemetery is famous for housing the grave of Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen. She was a brilliant woman, black/white mixed, worked as a hairdresser for rich white people, picked up all the gossip and then launched a psychic and Catholic Voodoo business using the stories she had heard for her divinations.

Her grave doesn’t have her name on it but it is easily recognisable as it is covered with XXX and with shitty gifts left by random disciples: lip balm, Chanel concealer, Starbucks coffee sachet, even a tampon just in case.

I spotted a jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise filled with a funny powder. I asked α6 who was there with me if he thought it was ashes.

A lady in her 50s intervened from the other side of the grave: “Let me have a look. I work in a funeral home.”

She took the mayonnaise jar from my hands with authority and shook the powder. She observed it with an expert eye. Her diagnosis was that it wasn’t human ashes, because certain bones are too big to consume completely when being cremated. The thigh bone for instance is so thick that some little bone shards would remain in the ashes.

She was so intense about it that I got intrigued and started asking her questions.

Her name was λ and she was doing admin in a funeral home in Nebraska. She didn’t do cremations herself but she was often attending them because she felt “passionate about sciences.” It was clearly her hobby, which was odd cause she looked like an average Midwest grandmother.

She said how much she loved her job, also for the emotional support that she provides to the families.

Her dream was to be a funeral house director, but she didn’t like the free lance aspect of it. She didn’t want to be on call because there is too much competition in the death industry.

I felt a little creeped out when she hugged me good bye.