At the Little Rock Film Festival in May, the Oxford American was proud to honor Bayou Maharajah: the Tragic Genius of James Booker, directed by Lily Keber, with the 2013 Best Southern Film Award.
We would argue that Keber's film is one of most culturally important documentaries made in recent years. Through a stunning collection of dreamlike montages of New Orleans streets, rediscovered footage of Booker's performances, and interviews with Booker's admirers (including musical icons Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint), Keber grants us access into the life of a uniquely talented and unjustly neglected American musician.
Influenced by musicians as seminal and disparate as Chopin and Robert Johnson, Booker developed a style that fluidly transcended a variety of genres—New Orleans jazz, R&B, blues, soul, gospel, and classical. In his prime, Booker collaborated with Aretha Franklin, Ringo Starr, the Doobie Brothers, the Jerry Garcia Band, and others. He was, to echo Dr. John, “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”
Keber, born and raised in Todd, North Carolina, studied filmmaking at the International Film & Television Workshops and later worked at Appalshop in Kentucky, helping to preserve Appalachian culture and tradition through media literacy and oral history documentation. Her experiences at Appalshop inspired her to cofound New Orleans Video Voices, where she empowers communities to share their own stories by teaching basic media skills. She discovered James Booker's music after moving to New Orleans in 2007.
OXFORD AMERICAN: Let's start with James Booker. How did you respond to Booker's music when you first heard it, and what about him was so compelling that you wanted to make a documentary about him?
LILY KEBER: When I was bartending at Vaughan's Lounge shortly after moving to New Orleans I'd play the jukebox a lot, especially when it was slow. When I played Booker's album, the first thing that I noticed was what bizarre song titles it had—stuff like “Coquette” and “Piano Salad.” I didn't know what “piano salad” meant. I had no idea what to make of the music either. I know how to listen to something like the Neville Brothers or Irma Thomas, but Booker's music I didn't even know how to listen to. It was like a different language.
I noticed that people in the bar would talk about Booker in the same way they would talk about Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint, and they would tell all these bizarre Booker stories. I thought, “Who is this guy who everyone here has heard of, but I've never heard of, and I don't understand the music and I don't understand the album?” People in New Orleans just loved the guy and cherished those memories, but at the time, when you did a Google search on him, just one or two pages would come up. You could only find an album here or there. I wanted to make the film because he was so loved in New Orleans but seemed to be unknown or forgotten everywhere else.
OA: With the lack of information available, how did you start to research Booker?
LK: I did most of my research by reading what did exist and then getting people to sit down and tell me their stories about him. In each interview a different side of him would emerge, and I knew that I wanted to craft his story out of other people's stories about him as much as possible. And people appreciated that I was researching James Booker. There was this feeling that if we waited much longer there wouldn't be anything left to hold onto. A lot of the people I interviewed were older, so I had to get the interviews now. I feel like when people get into their 70s they want to share their memories with someone of a younger generation. And I do think that being young really helped. It was like saying, “Grandpa, tell me your stories.” Except I was saying, “Oh my god, Allen Toussaint, tell me your story!”
OA: You interview a number of well-known artists in the film. How did you trace Booker's connection to people like Harry Connick Jr. and Hugh Laurie?
LK: The story of James Booker and Harry Connick Senior is one of those “only-in-New-Orleans” myths: The acting district attorney gets this renowned drug user with one eye to teach his little half-pint son how to play the piano. That's bizarre. Then the kid grows up to be Harry Connick Jr.? That's even more surreal on top of everything else.
The Hugh Laurie thing was really a fluke—I would never have thought that he was a Booker fan. But Hugh released an album called Let Them Talk while I was making the film. He's on piano playing songs he loves, and a lot of them are New Orleans songs. The title, Let Them Talk, is actually a reference to a song of the same title that Booker was well-known for singing. I read in Hugh's album liner notes that Jelly Roll Morton and James Booker were his favorite musicians. I thought, “Well clearly this man needs to be in my film.” He said yes; it was that easy.
OA: One of the most visually striking things about the film was how much old, beautiful footage of New Orleans and Booker you featured from the '70s and early '80s. Where did you look for this footage?
LK: Everywhere, but finding it was the hardest part—besides fundraising—of making my film. When you live in a place, how often do you just go and film the streets? Mardi Gras footage is easy to find; second-line footage is easy to find. I just wanted a regular street. So I talked to filmmakers who had lived in New Orleans in the '70s and asked if anyone had anything. A lot of that street footage was from two filmmakers, Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker, and they had made a film about gentrification and the changing neighborhoods of New Orleans, which is such a hot topic right now. Because it was about housing and about how people live in New Orleans, they had shots of people on their porch and people walking down the street and mowing the lawn. So that was a big source.
OA: The footage is so hazy but it really works for the film.
LK: And that's exactly what I was going for. It was an intentional choice to leave the flaws in the footage in order to give the film that nostalgic feeling, the feeling that you're looking back through the lens of time. I wanted the film to feel removed because Booker is removed. For one thing, he died in '83, so this is not a contemporary story. But I also wanted to create the sense that his memory and music are almost lost.
I don't know if you noticed, but there is no footage of Booker playing in New Orleans in the film. That's a very New Orleans thing, to not have footage of one of its black musicians from that time, and it says a lot about the city. We have footage from East Germany, behind the Iron Curtain, and we don't have anything of him playing in New Orleans. The same city that produced him ultimately contributed to his near-disappearance. That's really powerful for me, and it's really sad.
OA: When Booker went to Germany and France, he was wildly successful, but when he came back to the U.S., he had to play in bars and cafes, and he went largely unnoticed. How deeply do you think this affected him?
LK: I think it was devastating to him to know that he had an immense amount of talent, but that he wasn't being recognized for it, and he wasn't succeeding financially. But I think it was complex. That's what I really like about Booker—his story is like a Rubik's Cube that you have to work on.
OA: Why did he seem more mentally and professionally stable in Europe than in the U.S.? Everything about him seems more composed in the European footage.
LK: Well, the racism wasn't there, the homophobia wasn't there—as much. Even the drug use was a little more tolerated. But really I think that Booker felt he was being taken seriously in Europe, and it made him think of himself differently and improved the quality of his music. He needed the energy of the audience to feed off.
Maybe it's because Europeans come from that classical tradition, so they understood what he was doing musically, and that what he was playing was an entirely new approach to the instrument. So many European jazz fans have told me that jazz is the art of the twentieth century, but I can't think of too many Americans who would say that. Europeans sit down and pay attention, and James Booker's music is concert-hall worthy to them.
OA: Booker seemed more troubled to me than many of history's other tragic geniuses. Why did he have such a hard time?
LK: Where could Booker catch a break? To be black at that time, to be gay at that time, to be one-eyed at any time—I think about that, with the eye patch. There's nowhere in the world where he could walk into a room and not stand out. Then to be a drug user and be mentally unstable, which there was such a stigma against in the '60s and '70s…I think he was really alone in a lot of ways.
OA: Would things be different for him now?
LK: Well, in the '70s he could occasionally go to the psychiatric ward at Charity Hospital, which no longer exists. Louisiana used to have a free health-care option that has been closed down since Katrina. I think sometimes that if Booker could have made it another six or seven years, things might have been better for him with the founding of Jazz Fest, which helped the country discover many unknown musicians. On the other hand, the government is stripping out all the health care in Louisiana. It might be even worse for him now than it was in the '70s. That's a surreal thing to think about.
OA: Your film includes a lot of technical detail about New Orleans music and Booker's style, but it's also accessible for people who may not know much about New Orleans jazz. How did you create this balance?
LK: It was very much an intentional choice from the get-go. I'm not a musician, and before I could make the film I had to have a lot of piano players sit down, play Booker's music, and say, “This part is a reference to this. And this rhythm is derived from this. This is what an Afro-Caribbean rhythm sounds like and that's what it means.” Because I had to teach myself so much before I could understand the music, I wanted the audience to go through that same process. Also, I very intentionally didn't want to make a film for music snobs or people who already know Booker. My goal in making the film was to introduce him to a wider audience.
OA: You were educated at the University of Georgia and your career has largely developed in the South. How do you feel about the Southern filmmaker label?
LK: Oh, bring it! I am a Southern filmmaker. A lot of filmmakers will take me less seriously because I don't live in New York, but it's been a conscious choice of mine to make my career in the South. I think there's so much culture here that is overlooked and caricaturized, and I think there's a lot of work to be done. I remember when I was a kid I had the feeling as a rural Southerner that there was no depiction in the media of Southern life.
Even if I might talk a little slower and take a little longer to make a film, I'm still making a film that I want to make, and I'm developing relationships along the way. The people in the film are not just people that I interviewed for the film. These are people that I go to lunch with and e-mail with, and, when I make another film, they're just a phone call away. There's so much more of an emphasis on the people rather than just my career and their career. In the South, you can have a different quality of life while also doing what you believe in.
OA: Do you have plans for another film?
LK: There's still work to be done on this one. Now that I've made the film I have to get it out into the world to try to raise James Booker's profile. It's impossible as a filmmaker to live in New Orleans and not have a million ideas for a film. The culture here is so unique, and it's so endangered. I could live here the rest of my life making movies about people's stories.