My best friend is blind. We have known each other since he was six years old, when his mother brought him for physical therapy sessions with my mother for the first time. My mother and his are also best friends. We used both attended the same conservatory in piano. At that time his sight was unable to stabilize and declined steadily.
Jean-Marie has a strong mind, is very educated, and possesses near perfect memory. He works in a small company as an accessibility consultant, and is passionate about music and opera. He just received an electronic keyboard from his spouse, for his fiftieth birthday. We are supposed to try and play music together, even though he's in Paris. Jean-Marie is an important part of my connection to music.
When I want an expert opinion about my music, I send him a recording. I trust his ear, and the subtlety of his judgment. We went to New Orleans with my parents and family and him. To be in the birthplace of Jazz was a memorable moment in our lives. We were both moved by the felt presence of our ancestors, as they wrote a chapter in the history of music, and felt proud to be connected to the roots of Amercian music. We walked in the streets where the three civilizations were ground together in a culture mill and produced the seeds of an authentic American art form, without which the old continent would have be condemned to repeating the masterpieces of classical music, without being able to reinvent itself.
We hummed old jazz tunes as we strolled under the balmy sun and I described to my friend the delicate wrought iron balconies as we passed them by, the tactile manifestation of a culture at its zenith. On December 24th, we left for Nottoway, the house of a sugar plantation built by John Hampden Randolph.
John Hampden Randolph was born March 24, 1813, in Lunenburg County, Virginia, the fourth of six children of Peter and Sallie Randolph. He began his career as a cotton planter in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. In 1841 Randolph moved to Louisiana, where he had purchased Forest Home Plantation. He first planted cotton but soon switched to sugar cane. He purchased a section on the Mississippi River that he named Nottoway. At the death of her father in 1856, Emily Randolph, John's wife, received a large inheritance. In the same year, construction began on an elaborate Nottoway mansion, completed in 1859.
It was Christmas Eve, and it was hot. Mosquitoes had a field day with us, until we gave in and bought citronella. Our room smelled like ancient candle wax and cinnamon and opened on a balcony on the second floor, overlooking the lush green lawn growing amid thick majestic oaks.
We had been told that on the levee was a water wheel boat with steam powered organ. Jean-Marie had brought a tape recorder with him. We could not pass on the unique opportunity of recording organ music on a boat, and decided to walk to the levee at the end of the day.
We felt like the Lomax brothers on their expeditions to record American traditional music, and in our excitement, we didn't pay too much attention to the clouds gathering above our heads. The wind was blowing vigorously and we had to proceed slowly to avoid falling. I was giving my friend detailed directions and holding his arm.
We arrived where the wheel boat was moored, at around 6pm. Tourists aboard were curious and wondered what two grown men were doing on the levee with a tape recorder, instead of being on the boat and celebrating.
Recording was a challenge, because the wind was strong and loud, but we managed to record around half an hour of music before the rain started falling down on us. It was time to fold and retreat, under the mocking gaze of the boat passengers. Rain thinned down, and was replaced with hail. Ice balls bounced against our backs as we tried to walk faster.
Running with a blind friend under a hailstorm on Christmas night while carrying a tape recorder is not the smartest thing we ever did. But it was one of the fastest. We dashed through the thick meadow separating us from the plantation, while lightning bolts ascended from the Earth to meet purple clouds. The Christmas lights of the plantation guided our approach and when we reached our room, we didn't have a single dry square inch on our backs.
Later, as the storm abated, we gathered around an oak table, next to the fireplace. Jean-Marie took the tape recorder, and pressed play. For twenty minutes, all we could hear was the wind. We sat in silence, then shouted when the faint clamor of the steam organ playing jingle bells pierced through the rain and sleet. We sat motionless, like a painting by Winslow Homer, and our faces glowed in the warm light of the candles.
I looked at Jean-Marie, his hands slowly running along the edges of the tape recorder.
The most precious music can sometimes only be gathered by a friend of the night.