Louis Chauvin Portrait
Louis Chauvin (Shovan)
(March 13?, 1882 to March 26, 1908)
Known Published Compositions    
The Moon is Shining in the Skies [w/Sam Patterson] (1903)
Dandy Coon [w/Sam Patterson] (1903)
Babe, It's Too Long Off [w/Elmer Bowman] (1906)
Heliotrope Bouquet [w/Scott Joplin] (1907)
Louis Chauvin was well known, well respected, well regarded, and reportedly the consummate ragtime musician and beyond. The tragedy is that he left virtually none of his life behind when he died so young. Chauvin was of mixed race. He was born in St. Louis to a reportedly Mexican-Indian father and an African American mother, echoed on his death certificate, although there is some evidence to contradict this possibility somewhat. As there is a town in Missouri named Mexico, that also needs to be considered as a possibility. In the 1900 census Louis claims that both of his parents were born in Missouri. In addition, his generally accepted birth month and year of March 1881 are further challenged by the census, in which Chauvin (spelled Shovan in the record) insisted it was February of 1882.
As for his parents, there is an interview that mentions Louis having a brother named Sylvester, although there is also information suggesting that Sylvester was a cousin. Interestingly enough, Sylvester was old enough to be Louis' father. In fact, the 1880 census revealed that there were two Sylvester Chauvins of the same age in Saint Louis, both born in 1860, and both mulatto.heliotrope bouquet cover However, closer examination showed that the listing were referencing the same person but two doors and several months apart, as the original enumeration taken in June had been rejected. In that one taken at 907 12th Street Sylvester appeared as a musician with a wife named Mary (or Marie L.), but with no children (yet). For the retake in November he and Mary were living with his parents at 909 12th Street, working as a waiter in a hotel. By the time of the 1900 census Sylvester showed as having been married only 13 years, and his apparent second wife Nettie as having had no children. (A family tree refers to his first wife as Mary Annette, but that contradicts the usually thorough 1900 census, and the two women have different birth states.) He therefore cannot be confirmed as the father of Louis, and no corroborative records have been found. Mary died in April of 1884, more than two years after Louis was born, making her a likely candidate as his mother. He does, however, appear again as a musician in that record, along with his brother Abraham Chauvin, who had previously been a barber. Their listings as musicians continue through the early 1910s in Saint Louis city directories. As a result, this could invite some speculation that a few references to Louis in his capacity as a musician might have been confused or cross-pollinated with Sylvester or Abraham Chauvin, although there is no definitive data to back up this possibility.
Official confirmation of the existence of a younger Sylvester Chauvin closer to Louis' age other than mentions in remembrances of Louis could not be found. There was a Sylvester Chauvin born in 1902, who was the son to Sylvester's younger brother Link, and he was found living with an uncle, Peter Chauvin, in 1910. Peter is also listed as a musician from the late 1890s into the early 1910s. Without the 1890 census or more accurate birth information, as it was probably not recorded, many of the relationships are hard to confirm, but all of these Chauvins/Shovans are clearly part of the same family unit. Since they were all Mulatto, this would match Louis' possible racial makeup as well. In general, what scant evidence there is points at Sylvester and Marie as his birth parents.
It is generally assumed that Louis was raised in St. Louis. As a boy he picked up piano largely on his own, showing both a passion and a talent for the instrument. He also displayed an inherent sense of harmonic flow and melodic improvisation. A natural musician, Louis was both very capable of playing as well as composing, even if he could not notate it. Much of his composition was extemporaneous and fleeting. Brilliant tunes would flow forth from his fingers, then disappear the next day only to be replaced by something else just as fantastic. When he was around 13 years old, Louis and his good friend Sam Patterson left school and home to join the famous Alabama Jubilee Singers, a touring ensemble based in St. Louis.
Chauvin was one of the great draws at Tom Turpin's Rosebud Café, where he encountered other well known ragtime players and composers, including Scott Joplin. They were also part of a private club annex around the corner which they dubbed The Hurrah Sporting Club. Louis was also a member of a unique ragtime piano quartet made up of himself, Patterson, Tom Turpin and Joe Jordan. They performed for a short time at social events in St. Louis. But Chauvin also engaged freely in the more unsavory activities that St. Louis had to offer, including brothels, bars and opium dens, something that may have contributed to the ultimate defeat of his great talent.
There have been some rumors from time to time about a particular song or piano piece that Chauvin had composed put to paper, most unsubstantiated, although drafts exist of three pieces that were possibly put down by Sam Patterson. They were from a vaudeville musical play that Patterson and Chauvin wrote and produced together titled Dandy Coon, with Jordan as their musical director. In it, Chauvin sang and played piano, and both he and Patterson danced the cakewalk, often in women's attire. However their act folded after just a few performances on the road. During the 1904 Lewis and Clark Exposition in St. Louis, Chauvin joined Patterson performing at the Old St. Louis beer hall on the Pike just outside of the fairgrounds.
Louis was described by Sam Patterson in They All Played Ragtime, written by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, as follows:
[Chauvin was] about five feet five and never over 145 pounds. He looked delicate with his fine features and his long, tapering fingers, but he was wild and strong. He never gambled, but he stayed up, drank, and made lots of love. He loved women, but he treated them like dirt. He always had two or three. He loved whisky [sic], too, but he only seemed to be living when he was at the piano. It's authentic, I guess, that he smoked opium at the last.
Around 1906, Chauvin moved to Chicago as many other players were doing at that time. By this time, it has been assumed that syphilis was starting to ravage his mind and potential complications from multiple sclerosis were affecting his body. Recently a different theory has evolved, as will be explained. Somehow he managed a brief stint at Pony Moore's club at 22nd and Dearborn. Scott Joplin visited Arthur Marshall in Chicago (some sources say Sedalia) in 1906 where he found the ailing Chauvin playing some beautiful syncopated themes. Two of these strains in particular were found to be particularly haunting to both, and Joplin wrote them down for later completion. Once the strains were harmonized by Joplin, and two more were composed with thematic tie-ins, he released it in 1907 as Heliotrope Bouquet, giving Chauvin the primary composer credit, and therefore some of the income derived from the work. This and two other minor songs were all that would be published
Louis Chauvin died early in 1908 after 23 days in an Illinois hospital, having just turned twenty-six. Two potential causes of death were cited, including multiple sclerosis and starvation from a coma. Syphilis has also been unofficially cited, but while present may have only been a contributing factor or a conjecture. Scott Joplin house manager Cookie Jordan has suggested another possibility; that of sickle cell anemia, more common in blacks at that time than MS. Among the symptoms for those with a genetic inheritance of the sickness, stunted or slowed growth is normal, it can shut down certain organs creating a yellowing of the skin, and it was quite painful (information from the Mayo clinic). MS would have more than likely adversely affected his performance skills and ended his career more than a year before his death because of major muscle control issues, and this was evidently not the case. Given the extreme pain from SCA, a controlled substance like opium would have commonly been used to help negate that pain, accounting for his addiction. This would mean that in spite of his hard life style (which again was relayed by word of mouth), genetics may have been much more responsible for Louis' death at age twenty-six.
The composer was sent back to his home town and buried in Calvary cemetery in St. Louis on March 30. The whereabouts of his grave were not known until mid-2007 (see below), and preparations to mark the plot with a headstone are underway as of this writing. There are also currently efforts underway to better define his lineage and any historical links to either MS or SCA.
Thanks go to former Scott Joplin House staffer Almetta "Cookie" Jordan and Friends of Scott Joplin volunteer Steve Hinson who discovered the existence and whereabouts of Chauvin's plot in August, 2007. For contact information or to donate to the headstone, visit the Scott Joplin House page.
Article Copyright© by the author, Bill Edwards. Research notes and sources available on request at ragpiano.com - click on Bill's head.