Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah.
Years ago, I went to New Orleans' fabled Thirteenth Ward--"uptown," in local parlance--to hang with and interview the Neville Brothers on their turf. They weren't exactly hot then. Like most top-flight New Orleans musicians, and indeed like the Crescent City itself, they'd cycled through ups and downs of popularity so many times they must've thought they wre on a loop-de-loop. And after twenty or thirty yeras of the biz, they'd done so many interviews that heralded them as The Next Big Rediscovery that they must have been more than a little bored with the whole process. Still, they were polite at first, then gradually warmed up as they realized I knew something about their music and its history and the fruitful environment that is New Orleans, the only truly Caribbean city (with the possible exception of the very different Miami) on the North American mainland.
So we talked, in a tumble of anecdotes and asides, about what Art Neville kept calling the "gumbo" of the place--the spicy cultural ingredients that gave birth first to some of jazz's most vibrant idioms, then to some of the most influential strains of rhythm and blues and early rock and roll. There are the traditions of local Indian cultures that still show through at Mardi Gras, with its tribes and street fests and sturdy sense of community and communal creation of culture, and the stories about Indians hiding run-away slaves; the "Spanish tinge" that Jelly Roll Morton so famously pointed to in his (and the city's) music, derived from a combination of Mexican marching bands and the ongoing infiltration of Cuban rhythms via local composers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk; the calypso and other Caribbean elements that journeyed across the seas via sailors, immigrants, radio and records; the opulent European high-culture support systems for classical formats and dances, which were rapidly annexed to popular culture as musicians moved between playing high-society functions and less posh bashes; and so on.
Inevitably, James Booker--a high school pal of Art's who'd shared a band with him called the Rhythmaires--came up. From the Nevilles' mix of reverence, disappointment and humor as they unfolded tales of his preternatural musical insights and recurrent bouts of mental instability, far-reaching talent and self-destructiveness, it was clear that for them, as for so many New Orleans types, Booker represented one of the fullest flowerings of the prodigally lush garden of delights that grows in the Big Easy. (Ironically, as far as I can tell--there's no index, and I haven't read it cover to cover--he's barely mentioned in the recently published, seemingly solid Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans by Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner.)
James Carroll Booker III was both a wonder and an enigma, even to the people who knew him best. His parents, both musicians themselves, made sure he took lessons until he was 12, and he interpolated classical pieces into his music all his The year before he stopped his studies, he'd started playing blues and gospel organ for a local radio station; two years later, he cut his first single. He studied music for a while at Southern University, and was famous among musicians for being able to hear any piece of music and play it back instantly--backward or forward. He contributed uncredited piano on recording dates for the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Bobby "Blue" Bland and the Coasters. (Many local pianists, including Art Neville and Allen Toussaint, substituted in the studio for New Orleans hitmakers like Fats or Larry Williams when they were on the road--or, better still, impersonated them on tour, as Booker did for Huey "Piano." Smith.)
This man who dubbed himself "The Black Liberace," who refused to record his first album unless his piano sprouted candelabra, toured with chitlin-circuit stars like B.B. King and Joe Tex. He was also a drunk and a drug abuser who was busted more than a couple of times, who served a year for heroin possession, who never let his employers rest easy about whether he'd show up for a gig or what he'd do if he did. He wore an eyepatch, often with a gold star, and a set of false teeth that featured a gold star at front left too. But when he died at 43 of intestinal bleeding and heart and lung failure, he was working for the city of New Orleans as a three-piece-suit-and-tie computer jockey. Typing, he told guitar great (and former boss) Earl King, helped keep his fingers in shape.
As a performer Booker was an unpredictable as his hometown's weather. He could go from flamboyantly free-associative within a single session. Which is one reason his two studio albums that have been in circulation in the United States, Classified (Rounder) and Junco Partner (Hannibal), can only suggest the startling, shifting visions that drove him. On his good nights--and the anecdotes that surround him make it sound like there were many--he thrived on dazzling his listeners with the sound of surprise, which is one definition of jazz.
For Booker's mode was jazzlike: the open-ended musical quest. His restlessness in life was inseparable from his obviously insatiable musical curiosity. So a melody opened up vistas for him rather than existing in some clipped-off, sealed state. The scarcy thing about his segues is that they don't feel like segues; they feel as inevitable as water flowing down-hill. There's no question of something as artificial as a bridge, however well-constructed. Everything is happening so in-the-moment that simultaneity triumphs over sequentiality. For the possessed Booker, time seems to have stopped while he played.
And now come two new CDs lovingly culled from sixty hours of tapes made at his old stomping ground, the Maple Leaf Bar. Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah, which has vocals, and the all-instrumental Spiders on the Keys (both Rounder) have made live Booker available in the kind of thoughtful, organized way that, oddly enough, only serves to underscore his intrinsic and restless fluidity, brilliant flair, phenomenal range and possibly unmatched technique. After listening to them, it's hard not to think of him as the Art Tatum of New Orleans, the nexus through which the varied currents wafting around that city's glorious history merged, then passed into the future.
For, as producer Scott Billington rightly points out in the nicely reminiscent notes, "Many people, especially those exposed only to the live European albums, might think of James Booker as a blues or rhythm and blues pianist, but he was this ane more." Yes, indeed. He was a throwback to the era of the songster, where anything that pleased a crowd was grist for the performer's mill.
Booker was an imrpoviser who had worlds at his fingertips, from Chopin's "Minute Waltz" (which he once recorded under the title "Black Minute Waltz") to Ernesto Leucona's "Gitanarias" to "Besame Mucho" to his own truly frightening arrangement of "Malaguena," where in just one of the utterly breathtaking sections his right hand trills a tinkly circular pattern on the extreme treble keys while his left plays chords and melody at once. His touch was so varied and his pedal work so assured that he could cascade glissandos, choke a bass line until it sounded like a damped bass guitar, mimic a harpsichord, and downshift from precision-drill ragtime to lush grand-piano Romanticism to boozy blues upright to thundering gosepl chords without a hiccup. His left hand was a marvel that moved seamlessly between block chords and lightning runs, boogie rolls and mutant stride leaps. But usually underlying whatever he was up to, whether "St. James Infirmary" or "Sunny Side of the Street," "A Taste of Honey" or "Eleanor Rigby," was that New Orleans bump-and-grind rhythm that's had such an impact on every style of pop music from r&b and rock and roll to reggae. And its interaction with two totally independent hands--remember "Malaguena"--could redefine polymorphous perversity.
He was a caustic, slyly subversive wit. His version of "Knock on Wood" on Resurrection has him singing, "Think I'm gonna knock on my piano," which he then follows with what amounts to a fistfight--but a harmonically true, musically engaging fistfight--across the keys. And there's "Papa Was a Rascal," his version of "St. Louis Woman," which begins, "There was a sweet white woman down in Savannah GA/She made love to my daddy in front of the K.K.K.," and ends, "We all got to watch out for the C.I.A." He could sing in a stretched-out, parched tenor or a fluent falsetto, both streaked with blues, but he was also a crazed yodeler who could outdistance any Alpine Swiss or forest Pygmy or movie cowpoke. In fact, his only rival in that department (as in others) was his older contemporary, the better-known Professor Longhair.
And in all of waht he did, there was a headlong rush of deep emotion, a damburst of feeling that fueled the techniques and buoyed them into art like no one else made.
There are a lot of Rabelaisian catalogues strewn around this column. That's because there's no simple way--at least for me, and I only saw him live one unforgettable time--to draw a bead on Booker and his music. Almost entirely unknown to the public outside New Orleans, uncredited veteran of countless recording sessions, he was a giant under ground, whose seismic shifts are still measurable in the history of his friends and students and admirers, from the Nevilles to Allen Toussaint to the far less talented Harry Connick Jr. These two CDs are as close as aluminum, plastic and glue can get to his boundlessly freewheeling spirit. Come November 8, it's ten years since he died.