“With my ninth mind I resurrect my first
and dance slow to the music of my soul made new.”
––from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
While he lived, James Booker was apparently known by many titles. The tradition in African American music of taking on grand and sometimes outlandish designations stretches at least as far back as the Harlem Renaissance when Bessie Smith became known as “The Empress of the Blues” and Edward Kennedy Ellington gained fame as “The Duke.”
In addition to the name used in the title of the film, Booker has been alternately referred to as: The Piano Prince of New Orleans, The Black Liberace, The Ivory Emperor, The Black Chopin, and Little Booker. He was also known as an off-again on-again drug addict, a non-closeted gay man, and a psychologically complex individual for whom no single definition or description could ever suffice.
Interpretation of a Life
Lily Keber appears, at this point in time, to be one ideal interpreter of who and what Mr. Booker was as a son of New Orleans and as a thoroughly hidden American treasure. Like New Orleans, Keber’s hometown of Savannah in one of the American cities in which the music of jazz has its deepest roots. Her move to New Orleans in 2006 and her labors to pay homage to “The Ivory Emperor” have further extended the jazz kinship between the city and Savannah. She has, in short, added something much more than a footnote to the history of jazz in America. As the director herself put it, “It took growing up in Savannah to prepare me for moving to a city like New Orleans.”
Ms. Keber’s visual interpretation of Booker is much like the man’s music itself. Moving back and forth between compassionate biographical confessions in black- and-white, and straight-up-no-chaser testimonies in full color, she captures startling insights into the layered nuances that composed the great pianist’s life. They disclose heartbreakingly brutal accounts: such as the story of Booker’s introduction to morphine after being hit and dragged by an ambulance at the age of nine. Or how, like so many African-American artists of his generation and before, he was able to achieve stardom in Europe but not in his homeland. Given that the film is subtitled “the tragic genius of James Booker,” confrontations with soul-breaking pain are to be expected.
The torturous agony in the documentary is balanced by the unexpectedly comical. Take, for example, the scene of Harry Connick Jr. discussing how Booker would call him late at night to complain about very serious very adult problems in his life. After he’d done so, Connick would sorrowfully express his desire to help but explain that he could not because he was only twelve years old.
Beauty beyond Ignominies
There are throughout the film generous samples of why, despite the drug addiction and mental health issues that dogged him throughout his life, Booker remains so revered. He could play more complex arrangements of piano with a single hand than most musicians could play using both hands or with a partner playing beside them to supplement their efforts.
There is one more equally important thing. Booker was a teacher who passed on his gifts to the likes of New Orleans great Dr. John, who credits him with teaching him to play the organ. And for those unfamiliar with the pianist’s connection to Harry Connick Sr. and Jr., it comes as a physical shock to see a photo of him sitting beside Connick Jr. as a boy and mentoring one of the most now-celebrated musicians in the world.
Watching Bayou Maharajah, viewers bear witness to everything James Carroll Booker III unmistakably was. They consider all that he may have become and are left wondering how he could possibly have ended up dying as he did. They are also, however, left in awe of the fact that the beauty of his musical genius refused to limit itself to the ignominies of his death or those of his life.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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