How it’s New York: Jacquie Murdock is a native New Yorker

Face of Lanvin 2012

How it’s (Irish) Scottish: She’s Scottish

Yahoo is currently featuring an article called “Awe-Inspiring Women of 2014.” But my choice is Jacquie “Tajah” Murdock, featured in the documentary Advanced Style, and a Face of Lanvin 2012. In two generous interviews, Murdock impressed me as being one of the most dynamic and courageous women I have ever known.

Murdock, a former dancer with the Apollo Theater, had always known who she was. After church in 1930’s Harlem, her cultured, middle-class family (Her father was a restauranteur.) attended salons at inspiring hosts’ beautiful homes that were filled with wonderful music and conversation. One day, at the age of 5, this youngest of three daughters announced to her family that she wanted to be a ballet dancer. This would not be exceptional by today’s standards but back then, it wasn’t an considered an acceptable occupation for a well-brought-up young lady – or a lucrative career choice. So her parents – Scottish, Jamaican-born Edward Templeton Campbell and his Jamaican wife, Izilda Fyffe Campbell (childhood sweethearts who grew up and married in Jamaica, lived in Cuba, then emigrated the United States in the 1930s) – gave her piano lessons. This did little to deter Murdock’s ambitions, for she was born to stand out.

06_ADVANCED STYLE_Photo Credit to Ari Seth Cohen[pullquote]I was always a fashionista[/pullquote] Then her mother sent 8-year old Murdock for sewing lessons. Tall, with the looks and posture of a dancer, she became her mother’s seamstress’ model. She was finally in the spotlight. (Murdock allows that she might be related to Naomi Campbell. “I was always a fashionista,” she assured me.)

Her dancing was never far behind, though. This was the time of Cafe Society, and Murdock performed at famed NYC ballrooms when she was 15: the Renaissance, the Savoy, the Audubon. But she “grew up at the Apollo.” Frankie Manning and Norma Miller were [pullquote]She grew up at the Apollo[/pullquote]looking for tall girls who could dance, and Murdock began to dance there when she was 17. When she turned 20, she found that she couldn’t get a show, so Murdock took a typing job at Universal Films – the first black woman to get a job there. Then she joined Eubie Blake’s show, “Black-Skinned Models.” She was 25, and she took off!

Murdock took ballet lessons with a Russian teacher. Then, in her 30s, she was invited to see a belly [pullquote]She signed up for the first belly dancing school in NYC, Stairway to Stardom[/pullquote]dancing show, and she fell in love with it. She signed up for the first belly dancing school in NYC, Stairway to Stardom. When she tried to find work, however, she was told that she wasn’t “authentic,” because she was always taller and more svelte than the other voluptuous, full-figured dancers. Finally, she was hired at the Istanbul, a club that featured many different cultures’ dancing. Someone decided that she needed an appropriate stage name and called her “Tajmah,” for the Taj Mahal. Eventually, Murdock dropped the “ma” and became “Tajah.”

Roaring 20s Jacquie

Murdock in Marie Claire China.

Between then and now, Murdock married, then raised their two children by herself. She took a job in her 40s as a administrative assistant in the New York University (“NYU”) Computer Science Department, using computers when most people had never heard of them, and earning three degrees (liberal arts, communication, and media studies). She eventually retired from NYU.

One day, about four years ago, Murdock was taking a walk in Union Square and a young man stopped her. “Miss, can I take your picture,” Ari Seth Cohen, the photographer and author of Advanced Style, asked. “I have a website for stylish elders.” She agreed, and the rest is herstory. [Read more about Advanced Style, the fashion blog, book, and movie here.]

The blog begot a book and a movie, both entitled Advanced Style. There were London, Canada, and NYC premieres of the movie, and Murdock and the other women in it were there. The New York Times did a story on Cohen and used Murdock’s picture. [pullquote]I got more hits on Ari’s site than Mrs. Obama[/pullquote]The Today Show heard about Cohen’s work, and asked him to bring some of the women – and Murdock was among them. They were becoming celebrities. “I got more hits on Ari’s site than Mrs. Obama,” she asserted.

When Alber Elbaz, a designer for Lanvin, wanted to feature “regular” people in Lanvin’s ads, he sent his reps to interview Murdock. She was chosen, fitted for a dress, and went to Chelsea (NYC) for a photo shoot. “Ah, I was dressed like “chercher la femme,” she remembered. Murdock’s fame really went global: photographs of her appeared in Marie Claire (fashion magazine) in Hong Kong on Mother’s Day 2014, and she was interviewed on German radio, by the British press, and by a Russian internet site for elders.

There’s just no stopping her! Murdock still takes dance, working out with the Jazzy Randolph Dancers. She has been interviewed for the Duke Ellington Society’s archives, and they invited her to join their education program at Frederick Douglas Academy, the Kennedy Center, the Museum of the City of New York, and in Scranton, PA.  [pullquote]I wanted to go to Paris when I was 18…now you can exchange the numbers and make it 81[/pullquote]She loves to travel (“I wanted to go to Paris when I was 18…now you can exchange the numbers and make it 81,” she exclaimed three years ago.), but Murdock really enjoys the fact that people recognize her on the street and simply come over to talk to her during her long walks.

I have to say that she is one of the most fascinating and personable people I have ever met. But her life has been so huge and intricate that, unfortunately, I’ve had to edit our interview quite a bit – even this sizable article. Joey Reynolds, one of the biggest names in radio (WOR in NYC) who kick-started the Four Seasons’ career in 1962 by locking himself into his WPOP studio in Hartford, Connecticut  and playing only their first big tune “Sherry” for four hours, interviewed Murdock. When she told him that she was writing a book about her life, he challenged that if she wrote the book, he’d publish it.

And I’ll buy the first copy. Just please, Jacquie: finish the book!

About the Author