I might as well state this right off the bat: I never knew James Booker. When he died I was a twelve-year old boy in suburban Ohio, and was no more aware of his existence than I was of the intricacies of income tax. In fact, it would be several more years before I so much as heard his name. So it’s safe to say that my acquaintance with Book is solely through his music—the smattering of official recordings and many hours of unreleased material that bear his unmistakable mark.
I still remember my first encounter with Booker’s music. After reading a Harry Connick Jr., interview in which he praised Booker heavily, I managed to locate a copy of the CD New Orleans Piano Wizard Live! At my local college record store. I knew that Booker had inspired Connick’s burning arrangement of “Avalon,” so my expectations were high—but I wasn’t remotely prepared for what hit me when that disc starting spinning. It was the kind of piano playing that I had always wanted to hear, but never had. It was Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It was all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player. From that moment, I was hooked.
A couple years later, graduate school brought me to New Orleans where I was sure I would find mountains of documentation on Booker and his playing style. Sadly, I was wrong. I found plenty of great stories and recordings, but as far as insight into how he played what he did, his hometown seemed nearly as dry as anyplace else. Apart from one excellent article by pianist Tom McDermott, it appeared I would be left to my own devices. So, as my own pianistic mission, I began the daunting process of learning James Booker’s music on my own.
For any given piece, this basically involved two steps: figuring out what he was playing, and figuring out how to play it myself. The first step was simply a matter of listening to one small second of a recording at a time, over and over again, and trying to pick out all the notes Booker was playing. It was slow and arduous, but always eye-opening. I can’t count the number of times I spent hours poring over a single measure of music, and, when I had finally figured it out, thinking, “He’s playing THAT? Where did that come from? NOBODY plays that!” Once I had figured out an entire tune, getting it under my own hands was equally challenging. I continually found myself twisting my fingers into positions that had never, in all my years of playing, been in before, reaching for combinations of notes that were awkward and counter-intuitive, and by all reasoning shouldn’t have sounded good—but they did. The reason Booker’s music looked strange on paper and felt strange under the fingers was that no blues-oriented pianist before him had achieved his level of efficiency in getting as much sound out of the piano as possible; it was like playing Liszt and Professor Longhair at the same time. I can now say with certainty that it’s a pianistic experience unlike any other.
That Booker’s music hasn’t become part of the standard piano repertoire is, in my opinion, a crime; students of any variety of jazz or classical music could learn volumes from his arrangement of “Sunny Side of the Street” alone. Fortunately, steps are being taken to remedy this problem. The release of several previously shelved recordings, and a radio documentary by WWOZ’s own David Kunian have brought a good deal of attention to Booker over the last couple years. A recent article in Keyboard magazine devoted considerable space to Connick’s interpretations of Booker’s music, which, while not 100% faithful are sure to help the cause. An extensive video documentary is in the works, with a hopeful premier at the 1998 Montreaux Jazz Festival. Note-for-note transcriptions of several Booker performances—painstakingly pounded out by Tom McDermott, Canadian Booker fanatic, Andrew Fielding, and myself—are scheduled for publication by Hal Leonard this year, in a collection tentatively titled New Orleans Piano Legends (which will also feature the music of Fess, Dr. John, Henry Butler, and others). And for local happening, watch for the James Booker tribute portion of this year’s Piano Night at Tipitina’s. If these trends continue, maybe one day Booker’s music will be ranked where it deserves to be: among that of Tatum, Monk, Ellington, and all the other great American Pianists.