Lately I’ve been gorging on a feast of music-themed movies. Two recent offerings that garnered a lot of attention focused on jazz legends Miles Davis (Miles Ahead, directed by and starring Don Cheadle) and Chet Baker (Born to Be Blue, with Ethan Hawke portraying the very flawed hero of West Coast jazz).
It’s easy to flog the first movie for its crazy-caper plot – a fairly pointless conceit that even throws in a car chase/gunfight for good measure. Is that any way to treat one of the towering figures of 20th Century music? Then again, Cheadle himself described the film as more historical fiction than biopic, and you have to admire his acting and trumpet-playing chops as he nails a dissolute Miles at the lowest point of his career. And if you ever wondered how a cold-blooded junkie like Baker (or Pepper or Bird) could make such beautiful music, Hawke at least gives us an honest take on what it’s like to create art and destroy relationships while living on the business end of a needle.
But those films didn’t move me nearly as much as a couple of first-rate and relatively overlooked documentaries now available on iTunes.
You might recall my interview with Mathew Ramirez Warren, who directed the soul-stirring, ass-shaking tribute to the glory days of Latin boogaloo: We Like It Like That. Seems only appropriate that I should extend the same courtesy to Lily Keber, who directed another personal favorite: Bayou Maharajah – The Tragic Genius of James Booker (also available on Amazon and VHX).
If you’re new to the stunning artistry of this New Orleans pianist, let me direct you to this piece written by my brother Jack, who has spent countless hours trying to master some of Booker’s quirky originals (he does a pretty mean version of Pixie). Let’s just say a whole lot of Crescent City Soul wouldn’t exist without Booker’s keys. And those dazzling runs betray a wide range of influences – from Ray Charles and Professor Longhair to Erroll Garner and Liberace. Yeah, you read that last one right… Here’s Booker messing with the closing theme to The Liberace Show: I’ll Be Seeing You
Starting as a teenager, he toured and/or recorded with a mind-blowing list of artists: Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Lloyd Price, Allen Toussaint, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Freddie King, Dizzy Gillespie, Ringo Starr, and on and on. “He was our musical hero, the cat who could play with anybody,” said fellow New Orleans native Charles Neville. “He represented New Orleans and he represented the ‘hood.”
But as Keber’s film makes abundantly clear, Booker’s rich body of work is almost upstaged by his amazing, and ultimately tragic, backstory. As occasional collaborator Dr. John pointed out, he was “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Bayou Maharajah reveals a man who was even more fascinating and complicated than this comment would suggest. He was a hero in Europe and a virtual stranger in his own land – a former resident of Louisiana’s Angola prison (Booker, Charles Neville, Chris Kenner and the legendary drummer James Black reportedly jammed together in Angola) who struggled with a veritable cast of inner demons throughout his 43 brief years on the planet.
I could go on, but I trust that any of you with even a casual interest in New Orleans music and piano playing in general will take my advice and watch this film. In the meantime, let’s chat with Lily (while listening to Booker play this tune: Papa Was A Rascal)…
T.Q.: Let’s start with an obvious question: What drew you into Booker’s story and made you decide to do this film?
L.K.: When I moved to New Orleans in 2006, I had never heard of James Booker. I was bartending at Vaughan’s Lounge in the 9th Ward and people would play him on the jukebox. When his music came on, inevitably someone at the bar would start telling stories about him. So my first exposure to Booker was really through the stories people told. They’d always start out “I remember this one time I saw Booker…” and then launch into some outrageous, unfathomable series of events. For me, it was hard to reconcile these tales with the music I was hearing. Who was this guy who could spontaneously blend Fats Domino tunes with Rachmaninoff, then turn around and put a (fake) gun to his head and proclaim that he wouldn’t play another note until someone gave him some cocaine?
As to why I decided to make a film… it’s a silly answer, really. I wanted to be a filmmaker and was calling myself a filmmaker but I hadn’t actually made a film. So when I discovered James Booker’s music, I naively thought: “Oh, I’ll make a film about him.” I had no idea that the process was going to dominate my life for the next six years. I didn’t even realize at the time that he was such a huge figure in New Orleans music. As far as I knew, he was an interesting guy who, even 30 years after his death, still made a big impression on the people who had seen him play.
Booker was a big-time conspiracy theorist… Dan Auerbach mentioned that Dr. John reads a lot of conspiracy-themed magazines, which also inspire some of his poetry… Shadowy figures like Jim Garrison worked their way into the investigation of JFK’s assassination… What is it with New Orleans and mass paranoia?
Well…. How do I answer this question and not sound like a conspiracy theorist myself? New Orleans is a shady town where shady things happen. I love New Orleans, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But it’s racist and classist and has an intricate network of old-moneyed families that run things. It’s a “who you know” kind of town and if you’re not in the know, you’re not gonna get far. It also has a history of legalized prostitution and gambling, which sets a different tone than other cities in North America. It’s the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the county. And that incarceration is dealt much more brutally to the African-American community.
Let’s put it this way: Some people will tut that black New Orleanians are paranoid for saying Katrina was a set-up to get rid of the chocolate side of the Chocolate City. But during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers bombed a levee and flooded the more rural and disadvantaged parishes south of town, leaving hundreds of people homeless. So when poorly maintained levees were breached during Katrina (along the way, destroying the community with the highest rate of African-American homeownership in the country) and they shipped a bunch of black New Orleanians out of town with one-way bus tickets, are people really so ludicrous for thinking this might be intentional?
Some of the best observations about Booker come from unexpected sources. Hugh Laurie describes his playing as “glorious chaos,” and Harry Connick Jr (who coined the phrase “spiders on the keys”) gives a note-perfect primer on Booker’s unique and incredibly difficult approach to the piano. You must’ve left a lot of great stuff on the cutting-room floor!
Yeah, that pile of footage on the cutting-room floor was one of the most devastating parts of making the film. We interviewed so many fantastic and fascinating people for the film who didn’t make it into the final cut. There’s only so much you can fit into 98 minutes, so we had to make some tough decisions. Luckily, we’ve been able to reconstruct some of that footage and include it in our “Deluxe Edition.” We have additional interviews with Hugh Laurie and the legendary Cosimo Matassa, who we interviewed in the office of his family grocery store! It was absolutely mind-blowing to me that a seminal figure like Cosimo – responsible for nearly every hit song to come out of New Orleans in the 1950s and 60s – would just be chilling upstairs above the grocery store, answering phones and balancing the accounts.
We also have demonstrations and analyses of Booker’s technique from Harry Connick Jr, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Josh Paxton, Ronald Markham, George Winston and Tom McDermott. James Booker’s music is very dense and distinct, so it’s always been my hope that this additional footage could be used by both music students and music lovers to help access his music more.
A lot has been made of the Classical influences that informed Booker’s playing (including his nod to Frédéric Chopin, The Black Minute Waltz). I’d argue that few contemporary black artists have been able to borrow from the white, European tradition more effectively and organically than Booker. Do see it along the same lines?
Well, drawing a line between black music and white music obscures the fact that music is music. Lots of people start their piano lessons with music of the European tradition. And one of the best-known Classical composers from New Orleans wrote a piece based on the African-influenced percussive rhythms he heard as a kid (Gottschalk’s Bamoula). So the lines of musical influence run both ways. That said, I do think that James Booker nailed it as Classical player. And what’s striking to me is how much of himself Booker puts into the Classical he plays. He doesn’t just play the notes on the page; he makes Beethoven or Chopin sound like they were born in New Orleans and played in their high school marching band and gigged on Bourbon Street. My absolute all-time favorite is Booker’s medley of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# and Herb Alpert’s Taste Of Honey. I mean, who else on the planet would think of putting those two together? He dips back and forth between Classical and Pop, blending them seamlessly. Listening to that song is the closest I’ll ever come to knowing what it was like to be inside James Booker’s head.
Booker never got enough credit for his very soulful voice, which could go from playful to devastating – often in the same song. Your film captures a magnificent performance of the slow-burning True (written by Louis Catrell) at Montreux. Where do you think that voice came from?
I think James Booker’s voice comes out of his lived experience. His voice is certainly challenging for some people. It’s not a classical beauty, but there’s no denying that his voice is drenched with emotion. There’s an honesty in it. Booker at his best is some of the most soulful singing you’ll ever hear. And the fact that he could go from the heights of Sunny Side Of The Street to the devastating lows of Black Night in the span of a single gig demonstrates, to me at least, that Booker really put his heart and soul into every song. Black Night is not a song you want to listen to when you’re alone and depressed. Its despair is razor-stark. But at the same time, isn’t that the purpose of music? Of art? To move us emotionally and help us situate ourselves in the spectrum of human experience? Black Night
So Booker receives all this adulation in Europe and then goes back to New Orleans, where he has a hard time finding a gig. In some of his later performances, he’s so dissipated he can barely finish a song (my brother Jack saw a particularly bad performance at the Maple Leaf). As part of your research, did you listen to any of those performances?
Yeah, I listened to them. I listened to hours and hours and hours of them. We didn’t include much of this era of Booker’s life in the film because a little goes a long way. You don’t need to hear too many stories of Booker throwing up on the piano or failing to show up to a gig or winding up in jail to get the sense that he was heading for an early demise. It would be very easy to depict James Booker as a strung-out, schizophrenic mad man. But that was never my interest because it’s not what makes him special. Junkies are a dime a dozen. A gay heroin addict who synthesizes all the musical traditions of American music into one refined, technically dense, decidedly unique approach to the piano… that’s a bit more rare.
I think Booker remains criminally overlooked, especially given his prodigious chops and many contributions to New Orleans music. Hopefully your movie will help right that wrong. Do you sense that Booker’s musical legacy is on the rise?
Absolutely. When I started this film in 2010, there was hardly anything online about him. There was no website, there were hardly any articles, and most of his albums were out of print. Today it’s an entirely different story. Several albums have been reissued, there are musical tributes to him every JazzFest, and there’s a ton of unissued music that people have posted on YouTube. Every time we screen the film, people leave the theater asking where they can hear more. So I am very happy that this film has helped jumpstart a new life for Booker’s music and ensure his place in the pantheon of New Orleans greats.
This clip from Bayou Maharajah features Booker stretching out on the classic Cuban song Malagueña and includes a few observations by actor/pianist Hugh Laurie: