Q&A with Nathaniel Kohn, producer of Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker 

Just who was James Booker? An all-but-forgotten mad genius of jazz and blues piano, adored by artists from Harry Connick Jr to Bon Iver, Bayou Maharajah unveils this ‘60s outcast, marginalised by his sexuality, disability and race, who was plagued by paranoid conspiracy theories and known for his outrageous behaviour, such as appearing on stage in a nappy and demanding drugs to play.

But he was also an unparalleled musical genius, revered from New Orleans to Europe for his breathtaking ability to blend a Rachmaninoff tune with Sinatra, gospel with gutbucket. He performed with Aretha Franklin, Jerry Garcia and Ringo Starr, and reportedly never played the same set twice. His instrumental cult hit Gonzo was rumoured to have inspired Hunter S Thompson's journalistic moniker.

We put some questions to producer Nathaniel Kohn, who is here as a guest of the festival. 

Who was Bayou Maharajah?

James Booker, the New Orleans piano genius who is the subject of this film, gave himself several names during his career, ranging from Little Booker, to the Piano Prince, to the Ivory Emperor, to Bayou Maharajah.  None really stuck, but we thought Bayou Maharajah symbolized the complexities of the man.

What can audiences expect from the documentary?

Audiences can expect to be introduced to one of New Orleans' music legends, arguably the best piano player to come out of that city in the 20th century.  The documentary is about the man, his music, his struggles, and his times.  

What kind of research was untaken to source the archived footage?

Research was key to discovering Booker and his music.  He died in 1983 and many of the people who knew him are either dead or reaching that certain age when memories start to fade.  So we talked to a lot of people and those conversations led to boxes of old photographs and tapes, video and music libraries in the States and in Europe, and the vaults of television stations, record companies, and museums.  Over three years of research went into this production.

Bayou wore an eye patch as an adult, what happened to him?

Nobody knows how Booker lost his eye, but there are plenty of stories, many undoubtedly advanced by Booker himself.  Suggested culprits range from disease, to record company goons, to Ringo Starr.  We cover them all in the film.

How is music used throughout the film to tell the story?

The best way to tell the story of James Booker is through his music.  So there is a lot of Booker playing and singing the film, along with Harry Connick, Jr. explaining Booker's complicated technique on the piano.  The documentary itself is structured as Booker might structure a performance -- intuitive, surprising, melodic, unpredictable.

Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker is screening on the following dates, with producer Nathaniel Kohn in attendance at both sessions:

  • Saturday 3 Aug 11:00am Greater Union Cinema 3 SELLING FAST
  • Thursday 8 Aug 9:00pm Greater Union Cinema 4 STANDBY


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