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A man you knew even if you didn’t

Published: 
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Junior Telfer waving the flag for his beloved Phase II Pan Groove. PHOTO COURTESY JONATHAN ALI

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Junior “Jay” Telfer, who passed away late last month at 85 years young, was one of those Trinis you knew even if you didn’t. 

Unmistakable in his daily uniform of red turban, white tunic, and bespoke black pants, Jay was a fixture of the cultural scene: a habitué of pan yards and bandstands and of the mezzanine at Club 51, where well into his eighties Jay could be found liming into the wee hours, dancing with a grace that humbled those a third his age. 

Treasured by the legion of friends who sent him home last week, by the Caroni River, Jay’s was a sagacious wit I was privileged to know up close—and in whose earthy wisdom I delighted from our first meeting, years ago, when I was crass enough to ask him why, beyond national pride, he styled himself like a walking T&T flag. (And Jay really was that patriotic: no recent soca so delighted him like Benjai’s Trini.) 

Introduced by a shared friend who knew of my interest in CLR James, and who’d intimated that there was a man in Cascade I should meet, Jay had already regaled us, by that time in the evening, with rich reminiscences not only about his old friend CLR, but a half-dozen other historical figures whose paths his own had crossed. But pointing to his head-wrap’s hue, now, he fixed me with a patient smile. “Red is for living with passion,” he said. “And white is for a pure heart”—his heart was never far from his teacher Sai Baba’s locket. “But from here down,” he chuckled gently at his waist, “it’s pure niggerdom.” 

Jay was a world class character: few people manage, ever, to exude the sum of lyric charm he achieved in nearly every gesture. But as I learned on that first evening, and through dozens of subsequent conversations, the reasons he should be mourned now as a national treasure far transcend his potent personality. 

Because this vivid character on the West Indian scene, as far too few know, also played a crucial series roles not merely in reflecting his culture’s course, but in shaping its worldly impacts. 

His story about CLR James, in this respect, was typical both in its drama—Jay was forced to leave Trinidad, in 1961, for his ties to the great activist-scholar—and for Jay’s uncanny knack, as I’d soon learn, for being present for History. 

In the late 1950s, both men had been employed by Dr Eric Williams’ independence government. While James edited the PNM’s official news-organ, The Nation, Jay worked in the Economic Planning Unit, where he oversaw such signal public works projects as extending the north coast road to Las Cuevas, and building the Hilton Hotel. When James fell out with his onetime student, Dr Williams, Jay mostly agreed with the PM: much as he admired CLR’s intellect, he concurred with Dr Williams that CLR’s aim of Trotskyist revolution, in Trinidad, were pretty unrealistic. But Jay was also a man to whom personal style and ethics were upmost; ideology could never trump either. Which was why, when Dr Williams placed James under house arrest, Jay told his boss this was no way to treat one’s old mentor: the result, when he did, was Jay’s having to leave Trinidad on a few minutes notice. 

Such dramatic set-pieces were a staple of stories that were also always imbued, like his life’s chapters, with the dancer’s sense of timing he first cultivated as a boy, dancing in Beryl McBurnie’s company, and then perfected at New York University. This was a man once told by jazz great Thelonious Monk, in a Village club where Jay was bussing tables, that he’d never seen anyone dance to his oblique riffs like Jay. 

Little wonder, then, that when Jay fled for London, he landed right on time. 

The nightclub he opened there, in an old florist’s shop on Queensway, a nightclub called the Ambience. It quickly became the meeting place for a generation of ex-pat West Indians, with surnames like Constantine and Holder and Lamming, crucial to bringing the islands to the world. But with his club’s resident steelband and integrated clientele of socialites and rock stars and minor royals, Jay’s place, The Ambience, also had a strong claim to being the swingingest spot in swinging sixties London. 

If there was a notable from the worlds of progressive art or politics with whom to cross paths, or lure to the Ambience, in those years, then Jay did: from Muhammad Ali to Stevie Wonder to Michael X and Marcello Mastroianni—Jay forged ties to them all. He was a West Indian Forrest Gump, except with brains and depth and a core personal commitment not merely to good style, but to combatting racism’s injustice. 

When in 1965, a local activist called Rhaune Laslett approached Jay to ask for help in organising a Notting Hill Carnival, Jay got the neighborhood’s merchants onboard, and raised the funds so she could hold it outdoors. He also recruited his close chum Peter Minshall, then working in the theatre, to design a band for the streets. The result? Minsh’s original Paradise Lost. 

And when Jay and his great love Ruth eventually returned to Trinidad for good, in 1977, after spending some years traveling and studying in India, Jay didn’t stop. He helped steward a new musical era, in the 1980s, through his close ties to Roy Cape and Black Stalin. Leading the fight to revive the Little Carib Theatre, on whose board he served until the end, Jay settled in the lovely home in Cascade on whose leafy porch I spent countless hours, whenever visiting Trinidad and while staying in his and Ruth’s spare apartment, reasoning with Jay about poetry and football and absorbing bon mots about loyalty and life that he dispensed like lessons (“what’s the difference between my life and my wife?” he’d say of his cherished Ruth. “Nothing.”) 

Jay’s talent for friendship that let him forge rich bonds with both women and men, peers and kids alike. Cherished by the many younger members of a pumpkin-vine family to whom he was “the realest filter of beautiful truths,” as one of that family’s members, Val Pollonais, put it his wake last week. Sitting there on his porch with a cup of cocoa tea, he was also “Uncle Jay”: the old man who’d taken the time, contemplating songbirds in his yard, to name their tunes for his favorite jazz heavies. 

The last time I saw Jay, though, wasn’t on his porch. Nor was it on Port-of-Spain’s streets, even though it was Carnival Tuesday and that stage, to this street-dramatist par excellence, were a second home. Having taken ill days before, Jay had checked into Port-of-Spain General. He’d been unable to wave the flag for his beloved Phase II, during Panorama; what little of Carnival he’d caught was through his ward’s open window by the Savannah, across which I walked to visit him, dodging last-lap revellers on Tuesday afternoon. But, propped up there in bed, Jay was utterly himself: quoting Tagore and Julius Caesar; charming nurses he called “sister”; trading verses from old Midnight Robber songs, with an ailing man, one bed over, whom he called “my true pardner.” Perking up further as the sounds of a passing steelband drifted up from below, his turban was still in place, his tunic impeccable. And when remarked on same, he didn’t miss a beat. “You know the other reason I dress like this,” he murmured. “It’s so that when I’m coming, you know I’m me—that this man, here, is different from the rest.” 

We knew. And we know, now, what we’ve lost. See Page B9

— Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a lecturer at UWI St Augustine