With increasing frequency, the life, music, and mystique of pianist James Booker are asserting their presence again in our consciousness. Never far from the surface, Booker’s keyboard prowess and legendary character is churning the rapids and re-directing the currents in the vast river that is the culture and music of New Orleans. The 30th anniversary of his needless death in the waiting rooms of Charity Hospital comes November 8. Lily Keber’s fantastic, in-depth documentary Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker triumphantly closes the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival on Thursday, October 17 at the Civic Theatre. And Rounder Records is releasing a double-CD deluxe version of Booker’s final studio recordings, Classified.
However, for many New Orleans music fans and culture aficionados, Booker never left. You can hear his music on any given night being played in assorted clubs around town. Pianists from Harry Connick Jr. to Dr. John to C.R. Gruver attest both vocally and musically to his musical range and influence. There are Booker videos on the Internet and studies and transcriptions in music stores. In contrast to his days on this planet, there are plenty of recordings available to hear what the fuss is all about.
But what is the fuss about? What do so many people find interesting and intoxicating about James Booker? Why do we still think about him and obsess over him while other pianists and musicians of New Orleans have been relegated not even to the history books but to memories and stories that fade with time? As much as they deserve, nobody in New Orleans is playing Tommy Ridgeley’s music or producing tribute nights to Lee Allen. Why Booker? What is it about him that makes people return to him? Why does he matter?
When first dealing with the combination hurricane/“entire Bacchus parade marching through your living room” (as Booker’s friend, cartoonist Bunny Matthews, aptly put it), it is the music that first clutches your ear and heart and does not release you. Booker’s music is dense and dark and brilliant and happy and epic and emotional—sometimes just in one song. It is unique, marked by extreme creativity. No one has ever played the piano like Booker. In an email referring to the new deluxe Classified record, Harry Connick Jr. put it like this: “This CD is yet another example of the powerful genius of a unique and complex mind. I hear joy and struggle. I hear perfection and error. I hear confidence and hesitation—I hear James, the greatest ever.”
Ideas and emotions like that are all in Booker’s music. Questions of life and death, genius and madness, tragedy and comedy, one’s deepest feelings all are present. Musicologist and friend of Booker Jerry Brock has compared Booker on his good nights to hearing John Coltrane. It could be that intense, that spiritual and that proficient. And technically, maybe only Art Tatum, Bud Powell or Arthur Rubenstein could touch him. Josh Paxton, who has studied and transcribed Booker piano solos, has put it thus: “From a musician’s perspective or piano player’s perspective, he matters because he figured out how to do things no one had ever done before, at least in a rhythm-and-blues context. The way that he played derives from classical music and other things and techniques that he picked up from playing the organ that he used on the piano. Basically he figured out ways to do a lot of stuff at the same time and make the piano sound like an entire band. To me that’s his major contribution, making it sound like there is so much going on with just one person doing it that he is turning the piano into a one-man band.”
In other interviews, Paxton elaborates, “It’s Ray Charles on the level of Chopin. It’s all the soul, all the groove, and all the technique in the universe packed into one unbelievable player. It’s 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. He invented an entirely new way of playing blues and roots-based music on the piano, and it was mind-blowingly brilliant and beautiful.”
Another Booker fanatic is pianist George Winston. He has elaborated on Booker’s playing in several different places including his great essay in the liner notes to the Junco Partner re-release. He points to Booker’s excellent reinterpretation skills as he writes, “Professor Longhair (1918-1980) was one of James’ biggest piano influences and inspirations, as he was for many, many New Orleans pianists from the late ’40s to today. James plays Professor Longhair’s signature piece ‘Tipitina’ [featured on Classified] in his ballad style, using soulful hesitations and his liquid rolls, especially near the end. So much is said in the two verses he plays of this song. […] James listened to many kinds of music, and was a master interpreter of other composers’ music, often deconstructing the song and putting it back together his own way, and often expanding many of the musical principals in the songs.”
Pianist Jon Cleary met Booker when Cleary first moved to town and got a job painting the Maple Leaf Bar when Booker was living upstairs. He theorizes that, “Booker and Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) really invented a new thing in the tradition. If you look back in hindsight, you can see individuals who not only copped the existing repertoire, but added to it. They made a difference. In the evolution of New Orleans piano music, Booker was a definite step. He shifted it. He had grounding and fingering techniques that he got as a kid from classical music. Coming from rhythm and blues and soul music and blues and jazz, and it being New Orleans itself, all that gave him a style that was very distinctive. It’s hard to play. Very clever. Very clean. He could get great chords and tones, but he also could really hammer it out too.”
Sometimes Booker sounds like he has three hands. Sometimes he is playing so blindingly fast that his audience is silenced in awe. He also had a great sense of ebb and flow, of dynamics to ratchet up the intensity until the piano is about to explode and then stop suddenly and go in another, unanticipated direction. To hear him do this when he was really on his game is a revelatory, almost ecstatic experience. Allen Toussaint, a composer and pianist who knows more than a thing or six about the piano, says, “There is a word that is thrown around so loosely for certain people who have done well in life, if they do very well in life, they call them geniuses, but let me say that if the word is applicable to anyone, the person who comes to mind is James Booker. Total genius. There are some instances in his playing that are very unusual and highly complex, but the groove is never sacrificed. Within all the romping and stomping in his music, there were complexities in it that, if one tried to emulate it, what you heard and what excited you on the surface was supported by some extreme technical acrobatics finger-wise that made his music extraordinary as far as I’m concerned. And most of all, it always felt wonderful. If it was a slow piece, it wasn’t just a slow piece as opposed to a fast piece; it has all the meaning that it should have instead of being a slow piece that just went by. When he played the romping, stomping stuff, it had all the funk that it should have but with those intricacies that Booker invented for them. He was an extraordinary musician, both soul wise and groove wise. I knew that about him when I knew him when we were 12. Even at that time, he could play Bach two- or three-part inventions and it always felt exciting and, when he played the classics, he played it with all the nuances and spiritual meaning that I believe the composers intended. He was just an amazing musician.”
And then there is his voice. Booker sang with joy and pain, sadness and ecstasy that was all his, but in a way that all could relate to. His voice had soul and that bent-note, bluesy feel to it that goes back to field hollers and slave-ship laments, blues before such music was known as “the blues.” Tom McDermott, who has heard and studied Booker for decades, says about his voice, “I am so moved by his vocals too—on, for instance, ‘Black Night’—if Sinatra sang the same song about losing his baby, so what? He could go out and find 50 other babies to love in an hour. Booker was such a wretch; you could feel the desperation in a way that few singers could impart. Booker’s music has tremendous craft and tremendous emotional power. That combination always pleases me.”
McDermott is on to something here. There is something more to Booker than his momentous music. People who knew him saw this in him. Even though sometimes his behavior and inconsistencies could be maddening, his friends were very protective of him. They loved him and put up with him and loaned him money and paid his cab fare because he was inherently a sweet and decent person, one with troubles, but when you are a genius, that goes with the territory. As the real memories of Booker fade and the myth of Booker takes over, it would serve us well to remember that he was, like all of us, a complex human being, not a caricature. The tales of him playing solos backwards or getting crazy, whether true or not, come from a person who was a real person with foibles and habits and spirit.
That spirit in his music goes as deep as the music itself. Part of it is the unfiltered emotions that emanate from his playing like a shock wave from exploding dynamite. With Booker, whatever feelings that are coming from the music are there and in your face in a very real and visceral fashion. When he’s singing “True,” or “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” the emotions of those songs are strong and real, so real that they are dangerous. They have the power to provoke responses beyond the control of those within earshot. You listen to Booker and you might discover aspects or feelings in and about yourself that you didn’t know were there or couldn’t harness. And the people around you might, too. Maybe there is a little bit of Booker in all of us. That is part of the mystique of James Booker. He can bring things out of you. McDermott explains, “Booker’s music has mystery. The mystery of where he got his ideas; we don’t know much about his piano training. But also the notes themselves. I’ve listened for thousands of hours, and could only figure out so much. Josh Paxton’s transcriptions unlocked a lot of the rest, but there are still things I can’t decipher, over 30 years after I’ve first heard them.”
There is also the Fool/Jester part of James Booker. In Shakespeare’s plays and others, the Fool is the character who via humor and outlandish behavior and provocative statements points out the truth to which other characters are oblivious or of which they are in denial. James Booker enacted that role. In his era of Watergate or our era of the NSA surveillance state, when James Booker lets out an unhinged scream of “We all got to watch out watch out for the CIA!” it is important advice to heed. Even if he’s off his rocker, he’s right. Many people thought that Booker was crazy, schizophrenic or flat out weird. Then again, some of his closest friends would swear that his sanity was not in question. That is also part of being the Fool. No one knows whether the Fool is crazy or sane. Often Booker would tag on the Woody Woodpecker laugh riff to his solos to let you know the humor he saw in whatever situation he was in. He rarely let on whether he was laughing with you or at you. Ivan Neville relates a story of rehearsing at Jimmy’s Music Club with the Uptown All Stars. The band was indulging in certain herbal supplements as occasionally can be found around New Orleans. Bass player Nick Daniels was at the bar and Booker walked in wearing a police uniform. As Neville relates it, “I had heard of Booker wearing this police uniform around town, and I thought that was fucking hilarious. And there he was. And he had some aviator sunglasses, and where the eye patch would go, he had glitter on his sunglasses. But Nick didn’t know—he knew of Booker, but he didn’t know where he was. Nick’s at the corner and we’re watching him talk to Nick in a cop uniform, and we’re wondering what the fuck is Nick doing, and Nick’s pulling out an ID or something and then Nick comes over and says, ‘You better put that weed away. That cop is fucking hassling me.’ We’re like, ‘Nick, that’s Booker! That’s not a cop. That’s James Booker.’ Asking him for ID, and then telling him he’s a good bass player. We’re laughing our asses off. Nick comes over, ‘You better put that weed away. That cop is over there and he’s hassling me.’ That’s Booker, dude.” (He later appeared on the cover of Wavelength magazine in his underwear and a police hat. There is a wooden cut-out of this pose in the Maple Leaf.) As he sang, he did know “how you’re classified.”
Finally, there is something about Booker, his spirit and his music, that is the essence of New Orleans. When broken down to the basics, music is simply air vibrating at certain frequencies to cause sounds pleasing to our ears. And many musicians have theorized that due to the excess of air in New Orleans (a.k.a. humidity), the music here sounds different than other places. Somehow, maybe due to his genius, his attitude, his way of life—and who knows what other enigmas—Booker’s sounds vibrate more sympathetically with New Orleans, the people here and the people not here who get the mystique of New Orleans.
In addition, New Orleans is a place where the boundaries of acceptable behavior are expanded beyond the expectations of 95% of the United States. It’s okay, really almost encouraged, to be at least a little eccentric and outlandish. And it’s a place where people are allowed to be imaginative in their creativity. As Cleary remembers, “Booker was just another one of those eccentric nutters who were in the Maple Leaf all the time. He didn’t really stand out that much because there were so many eccentrics in that bar at that time. There were two guys who used to sit at the end of the bar in their 90s who remembered Storyville. They told stories about Storyville. There were lots of funny individuals. Booker was another one of those, especially to me, who just dropped in a foreign country. Speaking of the pantheon of New Orleans nutters, James Booker looms large.” Great artists and thinkers from Edgar Degas to Tennessee Williams, Louis Armstrong to John Scott, have had the run of this city since the beginning. It’s one of the most beautiful and appealing parts of New Orleans. James Booker embodies this as well as anyone who has ever called the Crescent City home. And, like the Crescent City, once he and his music and art get a hold of you, he doesn’t let go.
Read OffBeat‘s preview of Bayou Maharajah at the time of its debut at the SXSW 2013 conference in Austin, TX by Alex Jennings here.
Read OffBeat‘s review of Bayou Maharajah last month, as precursor to this month’s release, by Aaron Fuchs of Tuff City Records here.
View the Bayou Maharajah at New Orleans Film Festival 2013 screening details here.
Filmmaker and documentarian Jim Gabour produced a series on New Orleans music and musicians called “Music City” that was broadcast on Cox Cable. Here are two videos that were shot by Gabour as part of that series, featuring James Booker at the piano at the Maple Leaf Bar. Reportedly, he died 10 days after this performance.
RARE VIDEO CLIPS OF JAMES BOOKER LIVE
LISTEN TO THREE OF BOOKER’S RARE BUT FAMOUS SONGS
Black Minute Waltz
On the Sunny Side of the Street