Four weddings & the Maple Leaf Bar


Having been at a ministry school for the best part of a year, I feel I am now entitled to include a Verse Of The Day in my blog posts. Verse for today comes from Ecclesiastes:

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.”

Especially, one suspects, if the funerals are in New Orleans. Sadly(?) we didn’t see or hear any funerals while we were there, but did see four weddings. No, seriously. Parading through the streets with jazz band and second line. Was awesome. New Orleans was a lot of fun all round. Great food and great music.

One evening we lined up for a show at Preservation Hall – a venue which has been showcasing New Orleans jazz since 1961. It was a smallish room – held about 100 people – mostly standing. Ryan, Katie and I found a little bit of space at the back and, not to be put off by the humidity and an absence of air conditioning, “danced” for most of the 45 minute performance.

During the 8 hour drive down from Nashville, we were forming plans about what to do and where to go. Being a man of great awareness, I, all of a sudden, remembered that the Maple Leaf Bar was in New Orleans, and was the primary reason I had wanted to visit the place for years. So Katie, who was in the back researching activities and venues online, checked it out.

The Maple Leaf came across my consciousness because of one man – James Booker. A friend in the hearing aid industry introduced me to a recording of Booker playing some live show in Switzerland, and I was blown away. Blues piano like I’d never heard. Sounded like he had four hands. Further investigation online revealed that he did in fact only have two hands, he was from N Orleans, was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf from 1977 to 1982, and had done some recordings there. Mostly, to be honest, his recordings are patchy, as I understand a lot of his performances were, due to various addictions. Booker died young, probably as a result of said addictions, and became another tragic-tortured-genius statistic. But any hearing of him play at anywhere near the top of his game is breathtaking.

And so it was that Ryan, Katie and I traipsed into the Maple Leaf Bar at around 10pm one evening. There was a live band advertised as starting at 10. As is the way of these things, the live band were mostly not there, and certainly not ready to play. So we wandered through what was the sketchiest looking bar/venue I’d been in for a while, and headed towards the back – because that’s always a good thing to do in a sketchy bar in a town that you don’t know very well and has a reputation for random shootings.

There was another bar at the back, with a couple of customers chatting to the bartender. We kept going, out the back door, into the walled beer garden, which was so dimly lit that we could only tell a couple of the tables were occupied by the sounds of people talking and the interesting aromas wafting across from where they were. (Note to any HX readers: this was the safest beer garden I’ve ever encountered)

Sat there for a bit, then wandered back inside. The two customers at the back had gone, so I approached the bar and asked the barman if this was where James Booker had played in the 70s/80s.

“Aw yeah, this is where Booker played, man.”

I turned and pointed to an old, frankly knackered upright piano in the corner. It seemed implausible, but the piano was certainly old enough.

“Um, that wasn’t the piano he played, was it?”

“Yeah man! That was Booker’s piano, and Jamie Foxx also played it in the Ray Charles movie! It’s kinda wrecked, but the manager is looking to get it tuned and fixed up so people can use it in live shows and stuff.”

Mildly stunned, I made my way over and played a few keys.

“EASY THERE SOLDIER!” came the warning from the bar. I froze.

“Aw I’m just kidding man, fire away.”

Breathed out. And played it a bit more. Truth was, it was so wrecked so as to make it unplayable. But man, it still felt good. The keys that *did* work had a really easy action, like they’d been hammered into submission by someone who really knew how to hammer a piano into submission.. which they had.

In due course the live band came on. They were terrible. At least, they probably weren’t terrible, but I have a limited tolerance for 6 saxophones playing modern jazz. What a racket. But nothing could spoil that night.

A documentary on Booker’s life has, I understand, recently had its premiere at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. If that movie comes anywhere near Edinburgh or Nashville while I’m in town, I’ll be all over it.

Three more days here in Tennessee, and then am heading back to the UK, and work again. This will be the biggest shock to my system since I first sucked orange juice through a straw as a small child.

But on Saturday I have a date with Wiseman at PizzaExpress. So it’s all worth it.

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