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New Orleans' Bayou Maharajah arrives in Savannah (part 1 of 2)

“…His music pushes the boundaries of what is possible on the piano with an intricacy that surpasses Chopin. It was this complexity that attracted me to Booker. I needed to find out how a man could be both barely tolerated and completely loved – and how his music might make that possible.” ––Lily Keber, Director’s Statement

The Bayou Maharajah himself enjoying a quiet moment while seated at the piano.
Henry Horenstein

Bayou Maharajah, a film by director Lily Keber and producer Nathaniel Kohn on the life of the late New Orleans genius of jazz James Carroll Booker III made its Savannah, Georgia, debut before a full audience at the Jepson Center for the Arts on December 19, 2013.

Keber’s exceptional accomplishment in Bayou Maharajah has been acknowledged with several important awards. Among them are: the Oxford American’s Best Southern Film Award, and both the Audience Award and Special Jury Mention for a Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival.

Lucky Witnesses

Since its world premiere in Austin, Texas, in March 2013, Bayou Maharajah has played before sold-out audiences throughout the United States, in Australia, and in Great Britain. Director Keber herself, as might be expected, has been the subject of numerous interviews with individuals eager to lend their support to the film project.

One such individual is radio host David Kunian. In a statement about James Booker (December 17, 1939 - November 8, 1983) posted on eclectic singer Rickie Lee Jones’ website and in the online Chickenbones Journal, Kunian expressed well what viewers unfamiliar with Booker may experience when watching Keber’s film:

“When he got onstage, those lucky witnesses saw the grand questions that writers, musicians, poets and thinkers have been contemplating since the beginning of time: What is the line between genius and madness? Music and beauty and art? What is the nature of tragedy and joy and how do they dance together?”

Keber is a year 2000 graduate of the Savannah Arts Academy and later of the University of Georgia. She also happens to be the daughter of former Savannah Literary Journal editor Robert Keber and educator and author Martha L. Keber (Seas of Gold, Seas of Cotton). As such, one might be tempted to say that a gift for brilliant story-telling and for recognizing overlooked creative artists runs in her blood.

That would not necessarily be wrong. But it would say too little about the filmmaker’s own creative virtuosity and how it is helping restore the legacy of a man whose talents supplemented the world’s appreciation of such iconic artists as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Ringo Starr, Little Richard, The Doobie Brothers, Irma Thomas, and numerous well-known others. A haunting and ultimately self-fulfilling prophetic statement made by Booker in the film reveals he believed he was as great a talent as those for whom he worked as a back-up musician but at the same time thought destiny was not on his side:

“There is,” he said, “no guarantee that I will reach the peak that is preserved for me.”

Many would agree that Keber’s film has accomplished for James Booker what the better literary biographies achieve on behalf of their subjects. She has articulated his unique value with persuasive passion and expanded his audience beyond that known to the artist during his lifetime. Moreover, whereas some might have considered James Booker a perfect target for guerrilla decontextualization, Keber moved in the opposite direction and constructed a comprehensive creative context for the internal and external forces that fed his brilliance.

NEXT: New Orleans’ Bayou Maharajah Arrives in Savannah part 2

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
co-author of ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love

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