Giving voice to his music
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
Eighty-year-old Eustis Guillemet stands outside his church-run apartment building in the Irish Channel. After a particularly long winter’s night into spring, the sun shines bright and Guillemet has only one thing on his mind: soaking it all in.
It is a serendipitous moment for the jazz great and he wants to take full advantage of it.
A friend walks by and bids Guillemet, “Good afternoon, Mr. Eustis! Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Guillemet smiles and quickly reaches for and holds a finger on the button in his throat; the button that’s supposed to allow him to speak two months after the surgery to remove the cancer that eventually has taken his voice. Nothing comes from his lips but an unintelligible gurgling sound. Guillemet is crestfallen, but he settles for a quick wave to his friend then disappears into the elevator that will take him to his cramped apartment on the second floor. Somehow, a beautiful day isn’t so beautiful when you can’t fully admire it by talking about it and fully enjoying it with a friend.
Inside, the apartment, Guillemet grabs a pad and pen and that smile again crosses his face. He has found his new voice, just as he did eons ago when he first picked up that big bass fiddle and stroked and plucked it all across the world alongside names such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Eubie Blake and Joe Williams.
Guillemet runs his pen quickly down the page of a legal pad that’s filled in a flash, and flips the page to the next empty one as though he’s done this all his life. The names flow from his pen without thought: Marsalis, Dickerson and Cab Calloway. And the places he has played … He throws his head back for a second and smiles. And without looking down at the pad, he jots down Birdland, The Apollo, Basin Street East. There were great memories made in those places with those people, and it shows on his face.
It seems he could go on interminably with the names and the places. But by now, he has other things to “talk” about.
He pulls up his almost 115-pound frame, disappearing into the next room. He returns quickly with the worn weathered bass fiddle that has been his constant companion most of his life – the same one that added depth to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and to Joe Williams’ “I’m in Love Again.” He adds that he’s also seen three popes.
Guillemet holds the big instrument upright, lets his head fall backward slightly and begins to run his fingers up and down on the faithful instrument that performs brilliantly although it shows the scratches and dents and make-do patches of eons of bringing out the best in others – not the least of whom was Eustis Guillemet.
Guillemet is coaxing old favorites from the big instrument. He brings forth cello rhythms from his old friend, and in a second he’s on the bandstand at Basin Street East and the crowd is hyped up and waiting breathlessly for Count Basie’s trademark three note ending: “Plink! Plink! Plink!”
Guillemet lays the bass fiddle down gently and steps every so carefully over her to reach into a box and pull out some of his brilliant artwork, paintings and drawings that he does in his spare time. He avers to how he teaches art to youngsters, just as eagerly as he loves to “talk” about jazz and all the greats with whom he has played. The pen is flying, sparking out still more names, places and memories.
Guillemet tells about being born and raised in Tremé, and about playing with Professor Longhair at the Caldonia Lounge, and at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street, and of playing bass since he was a student at Xavier Prep High School Uptown and of studying music at Xavier University. He talks of studying not only jazz but also classical music and playing the operas, acting and his artwork.
“I’ve never been married,” he jots down. “I had a saying, ‘Single is safe.’ My fiddle has been my wife. We get along excellently together.”
And safe is what Guillemet has always been through all his travels around the world making music for others.
“Never a problem in my life,” he says, “until I came home to New Orleans. That that should happen in my home town last year … it was heartbreaking.”
During the summer of 2013, Guillemet, then undergoing treatment for cancer, was on his way to visit friends who were in town for the Essence Festival. He parked his car at North Broad Street at Industry when he was attacked by four burly thugs – at the time, Guillemet was undergoing treatment for cancer and weighed little more than a paperweight. One of the robbers choked Guillemet and threw him to the ground.
“They told me they just wanted my car. Well they took it. But I lost more than that. I had some of my artwork in it and my ‘chatter box,’ the device that helps me to talk. I lost all of that.
Those boys have to be caught and taught the difference between what is right and what is wrong.”
Guillemet shows a visitor around his apartment: the bathroom sink is lined with bottles of prescription medication for his cancer, and his bedroom is little more than a mattress on the floor. The walls are lined with boxes and columns of stacked clothes.
“I’ve had a great life,” Guillemet writes. “I’ve done what I always wanted.” He reaches up and touches the button in his throat. “I’ve thought about my passing and about a jazz funeral.
That would be nice.”
But for today, it’s a bright, sunny spring afternoon. Guillemet leads the way out of his apartment and around the walkway that encircles a bare utilitarian atrium and into a small boxy elevator.
Outside his building, a cool breeze blows and a crowd of tourists forms down the block for a tour of St. Alphonsus Church. Another friend walks by and nods to Guillemet. The old musician smiles and nods back. No words are spoken. No words are needed. Eustis Guillemet still has his music … and that’s all any real jazz musician could ask for.