The Piano Prince
text and photo by James Nadal
The New Orleans piano tradition has been extensively documented and recorded, from the fabled Storyville players and the early jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, to Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and the contemporary players. Then there is James Booker, whose musical talent was a wild amalgamation of all of the above and much more. His impeccable technique, coupled with perfect musical recall and innate sense of instant improvisation set the standard few pianists will ever attain. Though his erratic personality and bizarre behavior was often a distraction, James Booker’s artistic ability was so unique and unusual that all these years since his death in 1983, he is still considered by the musical elite in New Orleans as the premiere pianist.
I had the great fortune to spend a short time with Booker circa 1981 and caught him in top form while he was house pianist at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans and at a small club in the Quarter. My continual stuffing of the tip jar, making small talk, and asking for requests (which he always knew) gave me the rare opportunity to catch a fleeting glimpse of a musical genius.
This is a recollection of one night with the Piano Prince.
There was a long line at the door that extended well out on the sidewalk. A small crowd had gathered in the adjacent parking lot, and there was a fair amount of car traffic in front of the club as well. This would be very beneficial to his preparation for the evening. He would work his way in with the crowd, pay the cover, then slip into the dark end of the bar unnoticed, or maybe find a small corner table, but those are always for couples, and he was alone, so the bar it would be. That was the immediate plan.
He had become quite good at donning disguises and resorting to other discretionary methods, like voice and personality changes to cover his identity amongst the other potential players of the evening. He even had to be driven, as he couldn't drive, this long distance for he had burned himself at every club closer to home. But he felt he could pull it off here.
The sign at the front said "Piano Night - Cash Prize for the Best Pianist - Winner Takes All!!" That's why he was there. He knew that if he could actually sit down at the piano and play, he would win. He always does. He was the best, better than all of them.
He pulled his hat down until it bumped into the huge sunglasses. The oversized coat was a brilliant idea, as one could not make out his real size. He had on those platform shoes that made him look a lot taller, and the fancy cane gave him an air of perhaps an African prince, or a pimp. Either way he felt the disguise was perfect. With so many other colorful characters coming in, he had no trouble, paid his $5 and was inside. He sashayed toward the bar and ordered a club soda. That was the first test- hell, he would love to sip on a double Teachers on the rocks right about now, but he had been clean and drying out for a few days and was sticking to the plan.
He had made his entrance as late as possible to let the kitty jar fill up and allow some of the more remedial players to come and go. He knew that the better ones were waiting in the shadows, checking out the others, listening to what songs they played, so as not to do a repeat or better yet do such a different variation that it blows away the first version. The serious players were extremely aware of the scenario as it unfolded. Others were mentally preparing- some were drunk, or high on whatever, some where only there to impress their friends, show off a clumsy lick or two and then stumble off towards their table with a foolish grin. But there were some real fine pianists in the room as well.
Then there was him. He was in this for real, for keeps, he needed the money. This was no game, no night on the town, no whimsical endeavor to show off his chops. He was way past that. This was his turf, what he did. He was the man to beat, and if they knew he was there, they would holler foul and resort to any means possible to have him removed from the contest. They were known to take up a collection amongst themselves to give him enough money to bow out gracefully. But that was always less than the take would be. The way it worked was every player had to ante up at least a $20 into the kitty jar on top of the piano, and the house would also kick in a substantial door prize on top of that which was sponsored by the local brewery. The prize could be over five hundred dollars. It was worth it.
The guy playing now was a young white kid who had more confidence than talent, but he did have his moment, though a brief one. He was followed by a more serious looking fellow, showed some flashes of long rehearsal, but then he seemed to run out of material, the crowd did not even react. The next one was a thin black dude with thick glasses, just the kind that looked studious enough to get into some straight ahead jazz, which is where he went. He was polished and the crowd quieted down enough so he could be heard, good left hand, well thought out chords, nice soloing. Cat could play. So let the games begin.
There were a few other good players, and they received a loud applause. There was someone actually keeping track so it would all boil down to the best three. He waited until who seemed to be the last player did his thing which again was quite credible and showed some depth. As the announcer called out for any other players before the finalists were asked back for a final round, he stood up and approached the piano. He already had the twenty in his hand and stuffed it into the jar, not making an attempt to acknowledge the man with the microphone. Leaning the cane against the wall, he took his coat off, and sat down. When the man came over and asked for his name he mumbled something and left it at that. Some of the other players leaned forward in their chairs, to get a closer look at him. More than a few knew right away, there was whispered cursing and slurs. But they realized they were in for something special.
In what appeared as a graceful gliding motion, he was into a song, slowly at first, head down, still hiding under the hat and glasses. Then he was off. The crowd seemed to recognize the original melody of the song then they were treated to an adaptation beyond their wildest dreams. His improvisational runs up and down the keyboard was nothing short of spectacular, there was a hush in the quiet passages and whistling and shouts of approval when he really turned it up. By then, most everyone knew who he was; his name rang around that club as if they were screaming fire. A double scotch appeared.
There was no need for another finalist round; the announcer could not be heard anyway. He sat there grinning, took off the ridiculous hat, left the shades on to hide his missing eye, reached up, grabbed the jar, holding it high like a prizefighter, placed it back on the piano, and took off on a rendition of "Junco Partner" that brought pandemonium into the room.
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