Booker April 15, 2012Posted by Mark Folse in je me souviens, music, New Orleans, Remember, Toulouse Street.
Tags: "James Booker", French Quarter Fest, Joe Krown
The crowds pass on Bourbon as always, out of season beads and plastic cups. Over by the river thousands in front of the stages, brass band and accordion, Gibson and Zildjian, lawn chair and parasol. Inside the Royal Sonesta the crowd is older and better dressed, settled at tables, waitresses passing with trays of glasses, and on stage Joe Krown plays James Booker. I have wanted to do this for years but even if you go downtown alone you always fall in with a crowd, everyone is there, another tray of beer is on the way, another stage, another chance to dance. You are swept up in the ant hill madness. Carnival or festival you follow your crowd. This year I break away because some things should be remembered, not just in the cut out paintings at Jazz Fest but in the hands of memory on the piano.
Joe Krown is one of the exemplars of our generation, following a tradition that reaches back through Booker and Professor Longhair to the barrel house. It takes an accomplished pianist to do Booker credit. Behind the eye patch stood Bach and Chopin, Erroll Garner and Liberace, a turn as his preacher-father’s organ. Equally at home on the Sunny Side of the Street or hunched over Junco Partner, Booker had a range and virtuosity no one in the city could match. If Professor Longhair stands at the root of modern New Orleans music, Booker was the leafy canopy, branching out equally in every direction, toward and away from the sun, swinging in every direction.
In Irvin Mayfield’s packed club Krown plays a baby grand, joined by a saxophone and a drummer. The side men are good but after a while my mind drifts off during their solos, memory adjusting the mix on the soundboard of the old upright that once stood in the Maple Leaf bar, just behind the jukebox. It’s Friday, I’m off work early and my girlfriend’s job is just around the corner. I sit at the bar and order a beer and a man in an eye patch sits next to me, says nothing. The bartender pays him no mind. You want a drink, I ask? Sure he says. I don’t remember what he drank. Everyone remembers that he drank, that he died of kidney failure in a wheel chair at Charity, just another poor Black man waiting his turn. He takes his drink back to the piano and pays me back unasked. Somewhere behind that one-eyed jack eye patch is all of the joy and sorrow of New Orleans, the tribulations of musicians, piano lesson and barroom, something rare and delicate that could not grow outside of this city.
I slip in front of the crowd to take a picture and Krown mugs for the camera. For a moment I’m just another tourist in a room that looks a lot like the midday crowd at the Jazz Historical Park concerts, back from their free lunch break for a requisite allotment of the music before they climb back into their buses for a drive down St. Charles Avenue. I slip out into the patio for a cigarette, stealing a candle off the carefully set tables of someone’s upcoming wedding party to jam open the door behind the soundboard so I can hear. The sound man smiles. There is something just right about finding a place outside the crowded room, drink and cigarette in hand, close to the piano, unwilling to miss a single bar. Some hotel functionary shoes me away, reclaims the candle and I go back into the breezeway to find a place to snub out my smoke and get back inside. Someone along the back wall with a clear view of the piano gets up from their stuffed chair and I make for their spot like it’s the fire exit, plop down where I can watch Krown’s hands on the keyboard or just close my eyes and listen, alone with the music, drifting from the upholstered barrel chair to the barrel house barstool of nineteen seventy something and Friday afternoon.
Somewhere up in Woldenburg Park a band is setting up, getting ready for the last set of the day. Behind the stage, visible only if you squint your eyes just right, something hovers, choir-robed arms outstretched, a crown of thorns and a bared heart, an eye patch with a gold star. The band is there because we are here, because deep down in the bone everyone who has heard or played a note in New Orleans does so in the shadow of James Booker.