It is a balmy Friday evening. The crowd at Local 802 is restless for the night’s entertainment to begin. Jazz musicians and aficionados have gathered to celebrate pianist Reynold “Zeke” Mullins’ 90th birthday.
Jacquie Murdock’s health has been inconsistent and unpredictable lately, but she didn’t want to miss what she hopes will be a spectacular night of music. A crowd of about 100 pack into the austere club room decorated with red and black balloons. Local 802 American Federation of Musicians is the home base of one of the largest local unions of professional musicians in the world. Musicians throughout New York City drop in weekly to improvise together at their popular jazz jam nights.
Jacquie doesn’t know the birthday boy personally, but she knows many others in the audience, dressed in a mix of bright colors and suits and fedoras in honor of Zeke. Many are old-time musicians and dancers, their lives intertwining frequently at events such as this, giving them a dependable sense of community and camaraderie. Jacquie dresses up, as usual. Tonight she carefully applied her makeup, slipped on a long, lipstick red dress, and pinned her customary flower in her hair. She sits up front, right next to the stage as people mill about around her conversing.
Jacquie invited her friend Arlene to come with her, hoping they could make the trip from Greenwich Village to Midtown together. Arlene couldn’t commit and said maybe she’d meet her there. Disappointed but resolute, Jacquie traveled from the Village via C train alone.
Jacquie glances around, wondering if Arlene has made it yet and why the music hasn’t started. She has also brought a birthday card for Zeke but she doesn’t know how to get it to him. Because of tonight’s lighting and her vision, Jacquie can’t see.
Finally, the sound of a saxophone being tuned fills the air. A piano gives a chord and the snare of a drum reverberates through the room. Jacquie gets lost in the music.
Jacquie was born in Harlem during the Great Depression to Edward Templeton Campbell, the son of a Scottish plantation owner and a Jamaican mother, and Icilda DeCosta, the daughter of a Cuban school teacher and Jamaican mother. In 1920, they immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. Jacquie was born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Jacquie says her parents, whom she adored, shielded her from the harsh realities of the times.
She has great memories of growing up in the city.
“Girls jump roping and playing hide and seek. Boys hitting the ball,” she says. “It was more innocent before TV came. You only had a radio. I used to sit on the rocking chair and visualize and choreograph myself while listening to the music.”
Like many New Yorkers, Jacquie dreamed of pursuing her ambition—dancing—despite objections from her parents.
“I told my dad I wanted to be a dancer. That was like telling him I wanted to stand on the street corner,” Jacquie said. “I was born with a dancer’s spirit.”
One of Jacquie’s proudest moments was when she danced as a chorus girl with the Norma Miller Dancers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 17, during the theater’s heyday.
Jacquie’s boyfriends and later, her husband, were not supportive of her dancing. And eventually, Jacquie found herself newly divorced and newly pregnant. Even though she went on to work a full-time day job at New York University, she held on to her dream of being a performer for decades, traveling in social circles with musicians, dancers and other artists, meticulously picking out her clothing every day and attending dance classes regularly.
Her preparedness and patience paid off most generously in the last few years. Jacquie was walking in Union Square a few years ago when she was approached by the photographer of the blog, Advanced Style, which highlights stylish elders. He asked to photograph her, and Jacquie agreed. He put her in his blog, and book. A documentary of the same name followed, along with an appearance for Jacquie on The Today Show.
As a result of the attention, at the the age of 82, she was selected to model for French luxury fashion house Lanvin in an international campaign shot by fashion photographer Steven Meisel at a photo shoot in Chelsea. Dressed in an emerald green peplum dress and long dangling earrings, with her hair swept up in a tight french chignon, she portrayed an elegant lady inside a opulent apartment. From a young age she had wanted to go to Paris and model. “I was just a little girl with a dream. It came late but it came true.”
Jacquie says she is frequently stopped on the street, sometimes because people recognize her from Advanced Style, sometimes because they want to compliment her on her outfit, and other times just to see if she needs help crossing the street.
Despite the challenge of limited vision -- Jacquie has become legally blind in the last decade from glaucoma and cataracts -- she leads an active life. She typically travels alone to several different neighborhoods each week to go to dance rehearsals, jazz concerts, events and to run errands. She relies on public transit, the occasional taxi and the arms and eyes of her fellow New Yorkers to get her where she needs to go.
Jacquie is fiercely independent and she is ambitious. She has a list of things she wants to accomplish before her sight deteriorates further or before more ailments strike.
She wants to model again. She wants to finish writing her autobiography and give lectures at college campuses. She wants to travel to Paris, Cuba, and Africa.
“I don’t want to [give up]. Once I lose my spirit that’s when you give up the ghost,” Jacquie says. “I’m a fighter, a survivor, no matter how hard it gets I want to keep going.”
She credits dance and her busy life with giving her purpose. “I think it’s the exercise and doing what you love,” she says. “Some people just want to sit down. They’re not into anything and just watch TV, and say ‘I’m old’ and that’s it.”
In addition to the blindness and some hearing loss, Jacquie also suffers from atrial fibrillation and emphysema. She fainted on the subway early this year and ended up in the hospital. She worries about overdoing it and wearing out her heart.
Despite her vision impairment, Jacquie hasn’t been to her ophthalmologist in months because she’s been overwhelmed with medical appointments for her heart along with fatigue and weight loss from over exerting herself last year during the publicity period for the Advanced Style documentary.
“It’s a lot that I’ve been dealing with. I just let it go,” she says. She still has a supply of eye drops that she used in both eyes and plans on making an appointment soon.
The party for Zeke at Local 802 is in full swing and Arlene is still nowhere to be found. Jacquie doesn’t seem to notice. She seems transfixed by the Harlem Blue and Jazz Band - composed of many older jazz musicians. They move through “Take the A Train,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “What a Wonderful World.”
In the next number, a women in a bright pink shalwar kameez picks up her Veena, a stringed instrument originating in ancient India, and plucks the beginning chord of “Amazing Grace.”
Jacquie closes her eyes, taking in the melody. It’s one of her favorite songs.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
She sings quietly along, swaying her head as if in a trance.
“Beautiful. Beautiful.” Jacquie says when the song comes to a close. “I’ve never heard it played that way.”
Al Vollmer, founder of the Harlem Blue and Jazz Band, jumps on stage, breaking the moment, and reminds the crowd that there is much to get to. He calls Zeke up to the stage and presents him with a plaque and citation of merit from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Zeke shyly accepts and exits the stage.
Jacquie is eager to get a photo with the legendary saxophonist during the party.
She knows the circle of musicians and aficionados loosely – some, like her tablemate Burt, are good friends, while others are friends of friends. Jacquie has lost many friends over the years, including one of her closest friends last year. She purposely surrounds herself with regular acquaintances as a way to buffer daily challenges, stay mentally sharp through critiques and conversation and avoid isolation.
“We are all social human beings. We need to connect with other people,” she said.
Having an active social life, surrounded by fellow dancers, musicians and aficionados, supports her passion, forces her to stay physically active and gives her a sense of community. Seeing other people of her generation live so actively gives her drive.
“We have something in common. We all have a passion for that artistic thing—dance, music, art. You have something to talk about.”
Jacquie chats briefly with the singer, Ruth, before the band plays another set.
“The only thing I don’t like is I don’t have a guy to dance with. We could get up [right now] and do the Lindy,” says Jacquie.
Deep into the band’s set, Arlene finally arrives. They barely chat before the band switches to a roaring rendition of “Happy Birthday” and a large candle-filled cake is presented to Zeke.
After a few more songs, and to Jacquie’s regret, the party draws to a close.
“They were excellent. Any time you get an older musician, they will be better because they’ve worked with the best. They’ve worked with the masters,” she says.
Jacquie immediately switches gears and sets out to find Zeke, the birthday boy, and Fred, the saxophonist.
Jacquie clutches the birthday card she’s brought for Zeke and a tear sheet from her page in the “Advanced Style” book, the way she prefers to introduce herself.
Today, Jacquie’s sight and the room’s lighting allows her to see the stage but not specific people.
“Where is he?” she asks into the air, searching for Zeke. “Where is he?”
With help from others, she eventually finds them both. She delivers her card to Zeke who is caught in a crowd of other well-wishers, and she poses for a photo with Fred.
People begin leaving the party. Jacquie searches for Arlene, who she expects will help her get home, but Arlene seems to have rushed ahead. Jacquie has trouble navigating the mess of discarded chairs and tables. A women stops her. She’s a photojournalist and asks Jacquie if she can take her photo at a later date. Jacquie hesitates—she’s distracted looking for Arlene and the exit—but agrees and gives the women her phone number.
Jacquie finally finds Arlene in the lobby of the building and they exit. Still unable to see very well, Jacquie relies on and follows Arlene’s disappearing figure through the night, ahead of her.
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
More About This Series