The Blues Con­tin­uum

New England Review - - Music -

Ferd “Jelly Roll” Mor­ton, the first pi­anist from New Or­leans to build a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion play­ing blues-ori­ented mu­sic, died around the time Booker was born. Booker liked to note this fact in or­der to claim Mor­ton as a spir­i­tual fore­bear. Per­haps when Mor­ton’s soul de­parted the earth, Booker sug­gested, it flit­ted through his nurs­ery.

Like Booker, Mor­ton held his own tal­ent in rather high re­gard. Gen­er­a­tions be­fore Booker was declar­ing him­self the “Pi­ano Prince of New Or­leans,” Mor­ton’s pro­fi­ciency at pool and dice, diamond-stud­ded tooth, and easy way with women—com­bined with a well-pub­li­cized at­tempt late in life to claim his place in mu­sic history—con­trib­uted to the prob­a­bly un­fair char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Mor­ton as a hus­tler and a bluff. “Jelly’s own con­sid­er­able [mu­si­cal] ac­com­plish­ments in them­selves pro­vide rea­son­able sub­stan­ti­a­tion” for his boasts, writes the com­poser Gun­ther Schuller, and the tall tales speak to an in­her­ent ten­sion in the blues

2 Sev­eral sides were sup­pos­edly recorded for At­lantic in the 1960s but never re­leased.

and prepa­ra­tion, in­di­vid­u­al­ity and col­lab­o­ra­tion), dis­sem­i­nated both di­rectly among mu­si­cians and, in­creas­ingly, via record­ings, tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, and a sprawl­ing net­work of com­mon per­for­mance venues. Most of this mu­sic was tar­geted ex­clu­sively to black au­di­ences, un­til the rise of rock and roll es­tab­lished a het­ero­ge­neous na­tional mar­ket. Booker, then a teenager, was iden­ti­fied by the in­dus­try as a promis­ing main­stream tal­ent and recorded sev­eral times by dif­fer­ent la­bels. The break­through never came, though Booker even­tu­ally scored a mod­est hit with “Gonzo” (1960), a groovy in­stru­men­tal num­ber for or­gan that made the R&B top ten. It was only later as an adult, when Booker re­turned to early rock and roll—the scene of his youth­ful fail­ure—that he carved out a place in the con­tin­uum as a self-ac­com­pa­nied singer. To do so, he pur­sued a course sim­i­lar to that of Mor­ton, who ar­gued that solo pi­ano play­ing must em­u­late the sound of a band.

Record­ings of Mor­ton per­form­ing as a solo pi­anist and as the leader of an ensem­ble show strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties: a melody played on the pi­ano in oc­taves mim­ics the rise and fall of a clar­inet in one of Mor­ton’s en­sem­bles; an ex­change of chords in the left and right hands evokes the strum of a banjo; slam­ming the keys sub­sti­tutes for a cym­bal crash. Like Mor­ton, Booker de­ploys the pi­ano’s nat­u­ral vo­cab­u­lary to re­pro­duce the sound of a con­tem­po­rary band, com­bin­ing con­ven­tions es­tab­lished by Mor­ton and other blues pi­anists (walk­ing and stride bass lines; rolling arpeg­gios; sus­tained tremo­los; block and open-voiced chords; triplet “boo­gie” fig­ures in the melody and bass), many of them fall­ing out of taste by the 1960s and ’70s, with the more fash­ion­able tech­niques (sus­tained vamps and repet­i­tive bass lines) prized by a mech­a­nized cul­ture (the tele­vi­sion set as much as the night club or church stall). This hand­made, pe­riod-con­scious style en­com­passed ev­ery­thing from Chopin and disco to Satur­day morn­ing car­toons and the Sun­day morn­ing ser­vice, stand­ing at once in thrall to and at odds with the tech­nol­ogy-driven stan­dard­iza­tion of pop­u­lar mu­sic.

Booker em­ployed what pi­anist Ge­orge Win­ston calls a “three-handed tech­nique,” in which the left hand plays both the bass line and skele­tal rhythm chords while the right hand adds a melody and, dur­ing rests in the melody, fills out the rhythm chords, of­ten sound­ing like two pi­anists play­ing at once. The tech­nique re­quires each fin­ger to place a dif­fer­ent em­pha­sis on ev­ery note, with the em­pha­sis chang­ing at a given mo­ment, some­times coun­ter­in­tu­itively, to dis­tin­guish the in­de­pen­dent move­ment of each voice. Aided by im­mense hands that easily spanned in­ter­vals as wide as a tenth, Booker evoked a four- or five-piece ensem­ble, with well-de­fined bass lines, drum and rhythm guitar– like ac­com­pa­ni­ment pro­duced through his com­bi­na­tion of left and right hand play­ing, an or­ches­tral sense of har­mony—in par­tic­u­lar, an ac­tive use of har­monic move­ment that con­trib­uted greatly to over­all rhyth­mic drive—as well as dis­tinct melodic lines, com­prised not only of a given song’s tune, but of im­pro­vised melodic riffs that ac­com­pa­nied the tune, filled in breaks, and cul­mi­nated in daz­zling, cho­rus-length “so­los.”

har­monic res­o­lu­tion. Yet this yearn­ing is a prod­uct of Booker’s trick­ery: the fi­nal ca­dence and its res­o­lu­tion have al­ready ar­rived, many times over. Booker points this out by abruptly end­ing the song and pound­ing the last chord eleven times.

The “end­less­ness” of riff­ing, and the cir­cu­lar har­monies that un­der­lie it, are in­te­gral to blues mu­sic’s adapt­abil­ity. Its orig­i­nal pur­pose was to pro­vide a propul­sive beat for danc­ing and to re­spond on de­mand to the dancers’ needs. The re­peat­ing fig­ures and pro­gres­sions of boo­gie-woo­gie could fill as much or as lit­tle time as was avail­able to a no­madic work­ing class whose so­cial hours were lim­ited and con­tin­gent on highly er­ratic, of­ten pre­car­i­ous cir­cum­stances: the itin­er­ant, seg­re­gated log­ging camp; the makeshift honky-tonk; the speakeasy, rent party, or fish fry (not to men­tion their spir­i­tual corol­lary, the un­pre­dictable de­scent of the Holy Spirit). The pi­anist had to be ready to go or quit at a mo­ment’s no­tice, and had to pro­vide all the mu­sic with­out the lux­ury of ac­com­pa­ni­ment.

Booker was the prod­uct of a later era, when the blues, now a proven money­maker, was, like other pop­u­lar mu­sic, con­structed with record­ing and au­dio tech­nol­ogy, mak­ing the pi­ano less cen­tral to its per­for­mance. Most rock and roll pi­anists were role play­ers, and even stars like Lit­tle Richard re­lied heav­ily on the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of a tal­ented band and the cre­ative in­put of lyri­cists, pro­duc­ers, and stu­dio engi­neers. The per­former, once cen­tral to any mu­si­cal pre­sen­ta­tion, had be­come merely the most vis­i­ble of many in­ter­re­lated com­po­nents sep­a­rated by time, space, and func­tion—a new and ab­stract kind of mu­sic ensem­ble. Whether Booker chose or was forced to as­sume the com­pre­hen­sive, in­creas­ingly old-fash­ioned re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the un­ac­com­pa­nied, “live” soloist is wor­thy of con­jec­ture. Ei­ther way, his mu­sic, which is of­ten praised for its mad­cap un­pre­dictabil­ity, was firmly grounded in the same lu­cid con­cept of multi-voiced pre­ar­range­ment es­tab­lished years ear­lier by Mor­ton and his peers. Booker’s strong­est num­bers are em­i­nently log­i­cal con­struc­tions, each with a con­tin­u­ous, spi­ral­ing sense of for­ward mo­men­tum that sounds ope­nended, even dis­ori­ent­ing, but which is in fact quite fo­cused, al­ways di­rect­ing lis­ten­ers back pre­cisely to where they be­gan.

This punch line has been de­liv­ered many times to il­lus­trate the key as­sump­tions about Booker and his mu­sic: that he pos­sessed a mis­chievous, grandiose, and of­ten self-de­struc­tive wit and ego; that he was flam­boy­ant and un­pre­dictable; that he as­serted a strong sense of cul­tural pride, laced with un­der­tones of camp; and, per­haps most im­por­tantly, that he was of­ten so down on his luck he was will­ing to take un­de­sir­able gigs out of des­per­a­tion, in spite of his afore­men­tioned pride. These in­fer­ences may to vary­ing de­grees be ac­cu­rate, but they ob­scure Booker’s more likely mo­ti­va­tion for at first de­clin­ing the chance to make Junco Part­ner, con­sid­ered by many his most sig­nif­i­cant record­ing: Booker be­lieved mu­sic-mak­ing to be a com­mu­nal en­deavor and was re­luc­tant to turn his back on this con­vic­tion.

The un­ac­com­pa­nied soloist is an aber­ra­tion to blues mu­sic, which in­cites dis­crete, at times highly idio­syn­cratic so­los but also tends to im­pose strict lim­i­ta­tions on the in­di­vid­ual soloist: cho­rus length, har­monic struc­ture, un­der­ly­ing rhythm. The New Or­leans tra­di­tion of the un­ac­com­pa­nied pi­ano “pro­fes­sor,” a skilled au­to­di­dact who could sing and play any song in any style, faded with the demise of Sto­ryville, the city’s in­fa­mous red-light dis­trict, decades be­fore Booker was born.

As a boy, Booker seems to have taken point­ers from an older pi­anist, Isi­dore Tuts Washington, who per­formed stan­dards and blues un­ac­com­pa­nied, and is of­ten cited as the last of the pi­ano pro­fes­sors. The im­plied con­ti­nu­ity is some­thing of a myth, how­ever. Washington was only ten years old when Sto­ryville was shut down in 1917, and the pi­anists of his gen­er­a­tion (Washington in­cluded) typ­i­cally per­formed in swing or­ches­tras. Booker’s mu­sic was rooted in a new gen­er­a­tion that com­bined swing rhythm, sim­ple blues pat­terns, and the shout­ing vo­cals of the sanc­ti­fied church in a style the older mu­si­cians looked down on (“loud gui­tars” and “that high holler’ and screamin’,” Washington once called it, “just a bunch of damn noise”). These play­ers worked in small com­bos built around the pi­ano, with bass, drums, horns, and elec­tric guitar: for ex­am­ple, Pro­fes­sor Long­hair and the Shuf­fling Hun­gar­i­ans or Huey Smith and the Clowns. Fats Domino played with the house band at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Stu­dio (led by the trum­peter and ar­ranger Dave Bartholomew, an in­dus­try tal­ent scout who helped launch Booker’s ca­reer). And of course Booker’s con­tem­po­raries were no dif­fer­ent: Dr. John per­formed with the Night Trip­pers and the Bon­na­roo Re­vue, which for a while in­cluded Booker; Art Neville with the Me­ters; Allen Tous­saint, who suc­ceeded Bartholomew as the Cres­cent City’s most note­wor­thy mu­si­cal ar­ranger, played with ev­ery­one, and used the record­ing stu­dio like an or­ches­tral

the pi­ano-play­ing tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, as he did from Huey Smith or Fats Domino, in­clud­ing some of his most dis­tinc­tive num­bers: Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” “Sunny Side of the Street,” and “I’ll Be See­ing You,” which Lib­er­ace used to close his TV and stage shows and which Booker se­lected as the fi­nal song on Junco Part­ner, as well as “Be­same Mu­cho” and “Malagueña,” which Booker per­formed as “Malagueña a la Louisiana.” Booker was par­tic­u­larly fond of one Lib­er­ace trick: sub­ject­ing fa­mous clas­si­cal pieces to amus­ing al­ter­ations of tempo, rhythm, and phras­ing (“Black Minute Waltz”).

and how they came about, is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing just how metic­u­lously Booker’s solo per­for­mances evoked a con­tem­po­rary New Or­leans ensem­ble.

Stewart de­scribes a tran­si­tional pe­riod in rhythm and blues (1950s–60s), when both swing and straight eighth-note rhythms co­ex­isted, some­times un­com­fort­ably, within the same num­ber. In New Or­leans, this in-be­tween­ness was em­braced as its own dis­tinc­tive rhyth­mic conception—one that ex­panded the num­ber of beats avail­able for mu­si­cians to play with, lead­ing to the in­tri­cate yet dance-friendly pat­terns of funk mu­sic:

Some­times it is found be­tween mem­bers of the group, for ex­am­ple with the bass player in 8/8 and the pi­anist in 12/8, or the drum­mer in 12/8 and the pi­anist in 8/8 . . . As in the vis­ual para­doxes of M. C. Escher, the per­spec­tive of the lis­tener/viewer can shift—the me­tre is per­ceived as [swing] or straight, ac­cord­ing to which in­stru­ment the lis­tener fo­cuses on.

“New Or­leans mixed me­ter,” Stewart notes, can be found within a sin­gle band mem­ber, such as the drum­mer, who may play straight on the hi-hat and swing on the snare, or the pi­anist, who may play a dif­fer­ent rhythm in each hand. Booker was adept at this tech­nique and of­ten used it to send up the cul­tural and gen­er­a­tional as­so­ci­a­tions trig­gered by dif­fer­ent rhythms—if he played swing with his left hand, his right hand had to play clas­si­cal mu­sic; if he was rock­ing in an even 8/8, he was com­pelled to break into a swing­ing 12/8 pas­sage from W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

Like ear­lier blues styles, funk was an amal­gam, draw­ing on boo­gie-woo­gie, jazz, gospel, Afro-caribbean and Latin rhythms, and, in par­tic­u­lar, the so-called “sec­ond line” drum pat­terns of New Or­leans street mu­sic, which are cru­cial to funk’s urge to­ward phys­i­cal mo­tion. These drum pat­terns found their way into the mu­sic of James Brown by way of his band’s drum­mers, Clyde Stub­ble­field and, par­tic­u­larly, Clay­ton Fillyau, who learned them from a drum­mer in Huey Smith’s band, the Clowns. Stewart an­a­lyzes a hand­ful of drum pat­terns recorded by Brown, New Or­leans R&B groups, as well as a tra­di­tional Mardi Gras In­dian march, and finds that each shares the dis­tinc­tive struc­tural el­e­ments of march­ing band per­cus­sion ca­dences.

The pi­anists Ge­orge Win­ston and Joshua Pax­ton have at­trib­uted Booker’s abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late mul­ti­ple in­de­pen­dent voices to his ex­pe­ri­ence as an or­gan­ist. Booker, they say, plays both the or­gan’s pedal bass line (played on the or­gan with the feet) and the ac­com­pa­ni­ment chords of the lower man­ual si­mul­ta­ne­ously with his left hand on the pi­ano. In many South­ern churches, an or­gan or pi­ano may have been the only in­stru­ment avail­able (or al­lowed) to ac­com­pany a choir, re­quir­ing a play­ing style with a strong sense of rhythm. Gospel and blues pi­anists are of­ten said to be “per­cus­sive”—in­deed, Booker can be heard im­i­tat­ing the thump of a bass drum, rim shot fills, and snare drum rolls on the pi­ano. But this fails to con­vey how fun­da­men­tally he in­te­grates the drum ca­dences of the sec­ond line pa­rade into his over­all rhyth­mic conception.

Un­like Pro­fes­sor Long­hair’s drum­mer, Earl Palmer (ex. 2), who, un­bur­dened by the obli­ga­tions of melody and har­mony, is able to main­tain a more com­plex pat­tern, Booker changes and some­times sim­pli­fies the rhythm from mea­sure to mea­sure (see mea­sure two of ex. 4). With­out a band, he can­not al­ways play the six­teenth notes and skips, shifts, or is forced to im­ply them with grace notes (the triplet it­self may be a stand-in for a more in­volved six­teenth-note pat­tern). Even so, Booker’s play­ing re­calls Stewart’s de­scrip­tion of pa­rade drum­ming: on-the-beat play­ing on the first and sec­ond beats, with the sec­ond beat ac­cented (Booker uses both hands to play three or four notes at once), and a “pro­fu­sion of six­teenth notes around beats three and four.” A stac­cato ac­cent on the fourth beat and an eighth note on the “and” of four lead into and stress beat one, which is em­pha­sized in the bass, as the whole fig­ure re­peats. This, in short, is what makes the mu­sic funky; the over­rid­ing rhyth­mic prin­ci­ple of funk is its strong ori­en­ta­tion to­ward the “one,” or the first beat of the mea­sure, and the mu­sic’s cor­re­spond­ing down­beat em­pha­sis (as the group Par­lia­ment im­plies in “Ev­ery­thing Is on the One” and “Up for the Down Stroke”).

6 Ba­si­cally, Booker was lead­ing his own funky, one-man street pa­rade. This re­solve to keep in step, even when per­form­ing alone, speaks to the ir­re­press­ibil­ity of the sec­ond line spirit—when the mu­sic and revelry can­not be con­tained, and the pa­rade grows to in­clude not only the mu­si­cians, but a sec­ond line of on­look­ers and fol­low­ers, singing, beat­ing time, and danc­ing with the mu­si­cians down the street. The pa­rade may have been over, but Booker was still in­tent on rock­ing the block by him­self. Lis­ten, for in­stance, to his per­for­mance of “Eleanor Rigby” on the record­ing Spi­ders on the Keys : solo, yet in the style of a New Or­leans march. His ar­tic­u­la­tion of the fa­mil­iar melody, though em­bel­lished by an un­usual rhythm, is, as al­ways, clear and rec­og­niz­able; so even though the per­for­mance in­cludes no singing, the lis­tener can­not help but ut­ter—if silently— the song’s im­mor­tal re­frain. All the lonely peo­ple . . .

“He was one of the loneli­est, most des­per­ately lonely peo­ple I’ve ever known in my life,” said Thorny Pen­field, a New Or­leans writer and friend of Booker. What Pen­field doesn’t say is that this lone­li­ness was about more than friend­ship, ro­mance, ill­ness, or ex­is­ten­tial doubt—for Booker, it had a specif­i­cally mu­si­cal mean­ing.

rides he would take across town to bor­row twenty dol­lars from a friend. In the end, the er­ratic be­hav­ior that, dur­ing his life­time, kept Booker at a dis­tance from other mu­si­cians, is partly re­spon­si­ble for his good rep­u­ta­tion in death. The ec­cen­tric­ity—in­ter­preted now as a mark of ge­nius, or at least of hard-liv­ing bo­hemian au­then­tic­ity—seems to bol­ster his artis­tic stand­ing. How­ever, it also turns Booker into an ex­otic, min­stre­lesque spec­i­men: the half-blind, drunk pi­anist who makes a spec­ta­cle of him­self for laughs.

Per­haps this is why I’m par­tial to an anec­dote from the Para­mount ses­sions re­called by Dave John­son, the al­bum’s bass player and co-pro­ducer. Booker had gone next door to find a pi­ano at Stu­dio In­stru­ment Rentals, where he had ac­cess to one of the coun­try’s largest col­lec­tions of pro­fes­sional sound equip­ment.

“There must have been at least twenty pi­anos for Booker to choose from, but he came up to me re­ally ex­cited about this one lit­tle spinet tack pi­ano,” John­son writes in the liner notes to The Lost Para­mount Tapes. This may seem like another in­stance of Booker’s en­ter­tain­ing za­ni­ness (spinets were minia­ture pi­anos, mak­ing any­one who sat at them look enor­mous), but aes­thet­i­cally Booker knew what he was do­ing.

“Once we set up to record,” John­son writes, “I found out why he picked that pi­ano.”

A tack pi­ano has me­tal tacks fixed to its ham­mers, so the ham­mers pro­duce a per­cus­sive noise when strik­ing the strings, like an old up­right in a dusty bar­room. (Pi­ano ham­mers har­den with age, cre­at­ing this ef­fect nat­u­rally.) This dis­tinc­tive, mus­cu­lar tone, com­bined with the spinet’s nar­row dy­namic range, in­creased Booker’s like­ness to a drum­mer and am­pli­fied the per­cus­sive in­ten­sity of the band, which he had hand­picked to max­i­mize rhyth­mic energy: three per­cus­sion­ists, plus guitar, bass, and on some num­bers a tenor sax­o­phone. With Booker in ef­fect com­mand­ing eighty-eight ring­ing, in­de­pen­dently tuned tom drums, these seven mu­si­cians—all tal­ented New Or­leans vet­er­ans—com­bine to form the world’s most dy­namic drum­line. Of­ten New Or­leans ses­sion play­ers were forced to hold back or sim­plify their play­ing, but num­bers like “Feel So Bad,” “African Gumbo,” “Tico Tico,” and of course “Junco Part­ner,” fea­ture re­lent­less im­pro­vi­sa­tion from ev­ery in­stru­ment to pro­duce a rich, polyrhyth­mic fab­ric.

Booker is the clear leader, though his sta­tus is never un­con­tested, his play­ing for­ti­fied from ev­ery an­gle by the enor­mous rhythm sec­tion, in par­tic­u­lar by drum­mer John Boudreaux. The over­rid­ing ten­sion be­tween col­lec­tive and in­di­vid­ual im­pro­vi­sa­tion is pre­cisely what al­lows Booker and his com­pan­ions to ex­plore those six­teenth-note rhythms that, un­ac­com­pa­nied, Booker was only able to im­ply or ges­ture at, along with the “dis­ori­ent­ing syn­co­pa­tions and hemi­o­las” that Stewart says char­ac­ter­ize the funki­est mu­sic. The record is a bench­mark achieve­ment in New Or­leans mixed me­ter and a mi­nor mas­ter­piece of funk.

One can ei­ther lament the sin­gu­lar­ity of this record­ing or take heart in it. The Lost Para­mount Tapes sug­gest what Booker may have ac­com­plished had ill­ness, ad­dic­tion, and self-sabotage not im­peded his mu­si­cal am­bi­tion, but like

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