The picture above is John Keehan/Count Dante's 1964 class with pet lion. When I obtained this picture I began to look for the people in it.
When you venture back in time to uncover "the secrets of legends," there are usually innumerable obstacles along the way. You need guides, people who can smooth the way in difficult terrains of research. Last Sunday, a very good friend and Master Tai Chi instructor, Joseph "Jomo" Morris, suddenly passed away. Joe was one of the people who was always open to my questions from the very start of this project.
I returned to a community that is marginal but large. There has not been much film documentation of the martial arts community. It is over a century old and it's history is really part of the development of American popular and sports culture.
Robert Wyrod, with his short film Southside Warriors is one of the few documentarians to venture into "vibrant martial arts tradition that has been flourishing since the 1950s. Focusing on two different schools with long histories on the South Side, the film chronicles how the Asian martial arts have been adopted and adapted by African Americans to cope with life in some of America’s poorest communities." The film features another of my informants, the late Hamza Gregory Jaco, a childhood friend and my first martial arts instructor at the age of 14.
This passing of all of these men is a major reason why I need your help to finish this film. People are older, some are not in good health. Mortality takes it's toll. Whole libraries of knowledge have disappeared before I could get to them.
Joseph Morris was 10 years my senior, born in 1943. I thought I met Joe in 1981, when I introduced two Brazilian capoieristas, Eusebio Lobo DaSilva (Eusebio now also teaches tai chi) and Jelom Viera to Nganga Tolo Naa's African Kupigana Ngumi school.Tolo Naa aka Ray Cooper was one of Count Dante's first students from 1961. Eusebio was teaching at the Katherine Dunham Arts Academy in East St. Louis at the time.
We were having a discussion about when Tai Chi came to Chicago and I told Joe about how I had began my study in about 1972, with a teacher who used to teach in Grand Park near Buckingham Fountain. I could not remember his name, but I did remember that during my study with him he lost a few fingers to a lawnmower. Joe said he was in that class. I asked him if he was the guy who used to hit the tree. He laughed and said no. I did remember him, he was all business and talked very little.
I eventually drifted away from the class and left the country headed to Africa and Joe went to Taiwan. For seven years he studied Yangjia Michuan Taiji Quan with the renowned Wang-Yen-Nein. Over the years Joe became known as one of the top men in tai chi in the world. In that period of tai chi practice my philosophy was influenced and changed by being around the art, I was 19, and I increased my study of Taoism and was all the better for it.
Joe and I re-connected when I started doing research on the Count Dante film back in 2005. He was a great help in helping me reconnect with people, as I had been out of the community for years. He had great insights, was not in awe of mysterious histories and very objective in his opinions. Research requires great informants and and more patience than I could ever imagine.
It is at these funerals and memorials that old connections are reborn and new discoveries are made. It was like that yesterday.
I am going to miss Joe. He gave me a one line impression of Dante that everyone used from that period. I heard it from him first. I am not telling what it is. You will have to see it in the movie.