On a Sunday afternoon, Jacquie Murdock, stands in the middle of the Cotton Club in West Harlem dressed in a floor-length white gown dripping with sequins, with her customary white flower in her hair. She is surrounded by dozens of gold, black and white balloons and two gigantic metallic balloons—one an 8, the other a 5— symbols of the party being thrown in her honor.
Jacquie’s face is creased with worry. Her fingers, adorned with chunky cocktail rings, tap her side.
“It’s almost 4 o’clock. Why hasn’t the band started?” she says.
Her son Michael, decked out in a grey suit with a tan fedora and a matching patterned tie and pocket square, puts his hands on her shoulders in an attempt to calm her.
“Don’t worry,” says Michael. “It will be fine.”
Moments later the sound of a saxophone tuning fills the walls of the dimly lit nightclub. A trombone’s wail follows.
This party almost didn’t happen. Despite the milestone birthday this year, turning 85 was the last thing on her mind.
Jacquie’s never been big on birthdays, but the death of her friend last spring was a sobering reminder that her time on earth is limited. Lynn Dell, a boutique owner, and Jacquie, a dancer, both co-starred in Advanced Style, a documentary which celebrates stylish seniors. In Lynn, Jacquie found a kindred spirit and they bonded over their love of show business. Jacquie put her personal projects on hold (like the autobiography she’s been trying to write for years) to promote the film and enjoy the perks that came with it, like a modeling gig with fashion house Lanvin.
Then, suddenly, Lynn died. Jacquie has been filled with an intense sense of urgency ever since.
“After Lynn Dell passed I said you know you never know. Time is off the essence. [The book] was going to be my priority—and then I got sick.”
This past summer Jacquie was dealt two health challenges within weeks when she was diagnosed with both shingles and sciatica. Although the shingles have mostly abated, the sciatica still plagues her.
“It really came out of nowhere. Boom!…Every 6 hours I get this pain. Sometimes it lasts for hours.”
Still, her son Michael insisted that reaching 85 was a reason to celebrate and booked the event at the Cotton Club, the reincarnation of the legendary prohibition-era club which counted Duke Ellington and Count Basie among the jazz-legends on its roster.
A group of guests arrive and suddenly Jacquie is swept up in a wave of hugs, kisses and congratulations. She carefully selected the guest list, only inviting those whom she feels have influenced her life.
Her former dance partner Ajaibo arrives and Jacquie greets him with a hug and kiss. He’ll be leading his dance troupe, the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, a group composed of professional and amateur dancers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, in a tribute to her later.
Jacquie greets her good friend Burt, who attends jazz concerts throughout the city with her.
And Stephanie, Jacquie’s granddaughter, arrives with Jacquie’s newest great-grandson Enzo Javier. Jacquie coos over the baby.
The minister from Jacquie’s church, Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church, interrupts the revelry to bless the food. The crowd of about 40 line up to dig into the spread of fried chicken, BBQ ribs and fried fish. There are mountains of salads and sides including yams, collard greens and cornbread.
The band’s vocalist sings “Stand By Me” as party-goers eat. He walks over to serenade Jacquie.
She waves him away laughing.
When the band starts up again, a couple begins to dance. Jacquie wants to dance, too, but isn’t sure if she can. Her sciatica makes even walking painful.
Michael walks over to his mother and asks her to dance. She can’t resist this moment with her son. Despite challenging beginnings—she was pregnant with him while going through a divorce and was resentful that she had to turn down gigs because of her growing size—she adores her only son.
“I said, if I ever had a son I’d name him Michael. Michael is the archangel closest to God. People say he really lived up to his name….He’s the protector.”
Michael escorts Jacquie to center of the dance floor. Michael holds her and they sway gently to the music. He leads her into a turn but she tells him she can’t right now because of pain in her leg. They continue to sway for another minute.
But as the music crescendos she can’t resist.
Michael spins her and Jacquie comes alive. She moves more energetically and adds complex footwork.The crowd applauds.
Jacquie is in pain, but she puts on a smile and continues.
She releases one of Michael’s hands and performs to the crowd, spinning and twirling.
Towards the end of the song her legs stiffen, and she whispers to Michael. He pulls her close, and they finish the song as they started, swaying gently to the music.
Friends applaud and a few race up to compliment her.
“That was nothing, Honey. I was in pain. I couldn’t move,” says Jacquie. But she’s smiling, reveling in the praise.
Jacquie introduces the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, and three members begin an energetic dance to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” She's thrilled they are here. Until her sciatica descended, Jacquie had been taking dance class with the group twice a week.
Jacquie returns to the dance floor to take photos with family and friends. She’s thrilled when Phillip, a relative of Jacquie’s close friend, the late Yolanda King, arrives. Jacquie had just gotten a hold of him this morning and wasn’t sure if he would make it.
Jacquie takes the microphone to announce a special guest but with ownership of the mic can’t resist first spending a few minutes running through her dance history, which she says will be in her upcoming book. She also promotes “Advance Style.”
“If you have Netflix you can see it tonight when you get home,” she says.
A gospel singer takes the stage and sings Jacquie’s favorite song, “Amazing Grace.” Jacquie is visibly touched. She raises her hands to the sky and quietly sings along.
“Thank you Lord,” she says very softly. “This is happy days.”
Soon the crowd all joins in to sing “Happy Birthday” as a white cake topped with strawberries and blueberries is displayed on a small table by the bandstand.
And then there are a series of tributes to Jacquie.
Michael’s friend from childhood takes the mic and reads the card he brought for “Mommy Murdock”. He thanks Jacquie for acting as an adoptive mother to him and starts crying before Jacquie swoops in to hug him.
“I will never forget you giving me culture, confidence and most of all love,” he says.
Philip takes the mic next: “You taught me to be courageous and stand up for myself. You have done more in the last year then many have done in a lifetime.”
“Yeah, yeah” says the crowd.
“I’m just so overwhelmed, and you know I’m not [ever] at a loss for words,” says Jacquie. “I try to have people be inspired not to give up because dreams do come true, even if they come at a later date.”
Waiters march out with trays of champagne. Michael joins Jacquie and raises his glass in a toast to her.
Others follow suit.
“Because of you I have gone so many places. I look up to you,” says her cousin, Queenie.
“I may not have my aunt’s grace, and I don’t have her poise, but I want to take the chance to say how much I love you,” says niece Annette.
Jacquie walks up to hug her. “God is good. He put me on my feet today today.”
“We’re so proud you are one of our Mothers [of the church],” says the minister.
Jacquie is radiating through it all. “I’m just so happy,” she says. “It warms my heart. Every one of you is special to me. Thank you for coming to celebrate with me. I hope we can come back for the 100th one, too.”
As Jacquie kisses her friends and family goodbye, high on adrenaline and full of optimism, Michael reflects on the night and his mother. He’s aware of her age and that at 85, any time with her is precious.
“It’s a blessing. I’m so happy to have had her in my life for so long,” he says. “Mom is definitely young at heart and young of spirit. I try to be but it’s not easy.”
Three weeks later, Jacquie sits in Saint Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue waiting for her friend Burt to arrive, and for the meeting of the Duke Ellington Society to begin. While Jacquie is still holding on to the afterglow of the party (“everybody says it’s the best party they’ve been to”) the pain from her sciatica is a constant, worsening struggle.
“It’s the most painful thing in the world,” she says.
This morning she went in for a previously scheduled nutritionist appointment at her clinic and begged to see a medical doctor instead. The searing pain forced her to skip her usual subway and shell out money for a cab.
The doctor saw her and increased her pain medication. An epidural was suggested. Jacquie is terrified that she’ll be paralyzed (a serious but very rare side effect) but the pain is so intense that she’s considering it.
At the Duke Ellington Society meeting, Jacquie’s phone begins ringing and she fishes it out of her tote bag. She flips it open. It’s Ajaibo. She has a DVD of her birthday party and wants to see if he can make copies for her since he has the equipment. She offers to pay him. He says he’ll make the copies but declines her offer.
“Thank you. Money is tight,” Jacquie says. “I’ve been pretty shaky. This thing took a lot of out of me, Adjabo…It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here. I don’t think I’ll be going to many places until I get my head on.”
Jacquie hangs up the phone and dips into her bag feeling for the small cylinder that will spell relief. It’s an hour early, but she can’t wait any longer. She wrestles off the cap and washes the tiny painkiller down with a sip of water from her water bottle.
While Jacquie is waiting for Burt, she seeks out a tap dancer she saw practicing earlier on a makeshift tap stage. She finds him and they talk for a few minutes. Burt arrives soon after.
They sit down and Jacquie takes out some photos from the party. As Burt riffles through them Jacquie talks about her recent visit to Michael’s new house in Long Island.
“It’s so light and spacious,” she says. “I almost cried. Michael saw me, and he almost cried.”
Jacquie says seeing Michael settled gives her a great sense of peace.
“I said Michael, ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
His new house will likely be the site of this year’s Thanksgiving celebration. Despite the challenges of the past year Jacquie is looking forward to it.
“I’m just thankful to be alive because so many of my friends have passed away…at this stage of my life I just want to be peaceful and happy.”
Jacquie does want to finish her book. She recently hired a young woman to help. She decided to give up on her search for a typewriter and dictate the rest of what she wants to write.
Jacquie’s thoughts are interrupted by the sounds of singer-trumpeter Joey Morant and Catfish Stew as they begin their performance.
“Do do. Do do. Dooooo Do.”
Joey, clad in a shimmery orange blazer, encourages the audience to come up in front of the stage and dance.
“Even if you can’t dance you can shake, rattle and roll. The more you shake the longer you live,” he says as he shimmies his hips.
He notices tap dancer Michael Shannon. “Gimme some tap!” he says.
Michael walks over to the taped together pieces of cardboard that compose the makeshift stage.
He begins shuffling, brushing and tapping his feet.
“Go Mike!” calls out Jacquie, delighted.
After several minutes of energetic dancing Michael returns to his seat.
“Wow, he’s really great,” she said. “Mike said he’s just seven years younger than me.”
After a couple of songs, which attract a couple of dancers, Joey begins playing “Take the A Train,” one of Jacquie’s favorites. She pushes herself up out of her chair, takes a few short steps in front of the band and starts dancing as best she can. Her pains dissipates—if only for a moment—and all she feels is the beat of the music pulsing through her. She twirls around and a peacefulness washes over her face.
“Right now I’m in immense pain but I got up and danced. It doesn’t stop me,” she said. “I’ll dance to the day I die.”
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc