The Blues Continuum
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