The mystery of James Booker
Documentary by Savannah filmmaker explores troubled, flamboyant jazz genius
by Jim Morekis,
December 11, 2013
Gay. Black. One-eyed. Junkie. Genius.
Despite his talent and life story, few people outside New Orleans know about the pianist James Booker, but within serious jazz circles he's legend.
New Orleans lore has it that District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. made a deal with Booker, making a prison sentence for drug possession go away in exchange for piano lessons for his son, Harry Connick Jr.
True or not, Connick Jr. did learn the ivories from Booker, as recounted by Connick himself in the film Bayou Maharajah, screening next Thursday, Dec. 19 at the Jepson Center.
In addition to Connick, Bayou Maharajah features interviews with Hugh Laurie, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, and Charles Neville.
Booker died in 1983 after a troubled life, leaving behind little but memories of his over-the-top personality and complex musical style.
We talked to filmmaker Lila Keibler, a Savannah Arts Academy (class of 2000) and University of Georgia graduate, about her debut documentary, inspired after several years living in the Big Easy.
How did you find out about Booker and what led you to make a film about him?
Lila Keber: In New Orleans he's such a legend, but when I moved there in 2006 I'd never heard of him before. My friends in Savannah had also never heard of him. I'm not a musician, but what drew me in was him, his personality and life. The emotional honesty of his music. It's not easy listening, but if you're willing to go there you'll really get a lot out of it. I felt like I had to get more involved. It's been an incredible journey.
And of course there's this very interesting angle of New Orleans and a whole different musical lifestyle. This is a story unique to New Orleans, but at the same time not unique at all.
The more I tried to learn about him the more mysterious he became. There's very little about him on the internet. The few albums that are out are very strange.
Another mystery about Booker is how he lost his eye. There are all kinds of different stories. To me the whole thing is a metaphor for the mystery that is him. Rather than having me decide which version is most truthful, I decided to leave it all in, sort of a montage of every story. With someone like Booker, the greater truth is the fact that all these bizarre stories exist at all.
There's a whole sociopolitical angle with Booker as well — a victim of both racism and homophobia.
Lila Keber: Well, the film is really the story of a creative person trying to find his way in the world. It does deal with race and sexuality but in a more implicit way. Those things are absolutely intrinsic to the story, but I don't dwell on it. I do touch on him being gay, but for me that's as far as it needs to go.
Look at the world he was living in then — it wasn't easy being him even in New Orleans, even in the French Quarter. He also did a stint in Angola, the state penitentiary. Louisiana at that time was not an easy place to be an African American male, and of course there's never a good time to be in Angola.
Even 30 years later some people I talked to about him were shocked and appalled I would even consider he was gay. But really in New Orleans it doesn't matter what you are, it's about whether you can play. Of course there's a long tradition in New Orleans of black gay emcees and crossdressing. You see that even today in Sissy Bounce.
What is Booker's impact on the jazz world really?
Lila Keber: Booker's whole life is a series of complicated mysteries, but the one incontrovertible thing is his music is stunning. He was one of America's greatest piano players. He developed an entirely new approach.
There's this early scene where Harry Connick Jr., breaks down Booker's style. He shows the left hand doing one thing, the right hand doing another thing, and also finger by finger. With Booker every finger was doing a different thing, referencing a different part of the song.
It's incredible. It's unlike anything else before or since. Certainly pianists and musicians can hear how complicated his style was, but I wanted to make sure this was accessible to anyone.
Harry Connick Jr. is known for being very approachable, but still... you getting so much cooperation from him on this film is a really big deal.
Lila Keber: Harry Connick Sr. was the New Orleans district attorney for many, many years. As a sitting DA he would have James Booker, this renowned outspoken drug user, over to his house to give lessons to young Harry Connick Jr. It's a real New Orleans story. Only in New Orleans is that social dynamic going to work.
Harry Connick Jr. is an integral character in the film. He's almost a narrator. And there would be no Connick Jr. as we know him today without James Booker.
It's been interesting for me to take the film around the world, to countries where they don't know who Harry Connick Jr. is at all. One thing they all say is how that relationship is one of the deepest in the film. You really feel the love when Harry talks about Booker. He becomes that little kid on screen again, he becomes a kid talking about his favorite uncle.
Many documentary filmmakers I interview seem to err on the side of inclusion and pack too many interviews and too much footage into one film.
Lila Keber: I had the opposite problem (laughs). People said, oh you'll never find any footage of him. Well, that's not really true. I found enough footage to populate the film. It's very interesting — 90 percent of it is European. Europeans for whatever reason — we hear this again and again — could take him more seriously and appreciate him more than he ever was stateside. It's an implicit commentary that's true today. In New Orleans even today all the bands go to Europe for summer festivals to make their money for the year.
It also seems common for filmmakers to sort of over-identify with their subject, to get too detailed for the general public. How do you check yourself to make sure that doesn't happen?
Lila Keber: It's a fine line. You want to make a film that on one hand anyone regardless of background or knowledge can appreciate, but also one that appeases diehard fans. I wanted to make sure I was saying something deeper. Not just crazy anecdotes, but revealing deeper truths.
The film raises more questions than answers. One of the greatest compliments I get is people saying "I was thinking about your movie the next couple of days afterward." There's no instance where there's a simple answer. With Booker, it's always more like, "yes, but..."