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Arts Desk

You probably don't know the story about this Philadelphia-born jazz great... but you should.

Beryl Booker
Gilles Petard/Redferns
/
Redferns
Beryl Booker, studio portrait, 1960

A child prodigy born in 1922 in the midst of Black artistic expression in Philadelphia, Beryl Booker grew up to be a fine swing pianist and nightclub leader who never learned to read music, yet excelled at it along the way.

Booker began her star-filled career as a girl sweeping kitchen floors for quarters while also touring the local amateur circuit as a preschool pianist, winning awards so frequently that rival parents complained to theater managers. By her teens, she was performing regularly in clubs and theaters.

Beryl Booker | "Let's Fall In Love"

As a young adult, Booker's big break came when she encountered Slam Stewart, one of the most recorded jazz bassists of the 1940s. Although he pledged to never work with women, Stewart was so impressed by Booker's playing that he invited her to join his trio. She would go on to lead various trios from 1952 to 1954, including an engagement at the Embers in 1953 and a tour of Europe in 1954 (occasionally with Billie Holiday), and another tour with Dinah Washington in 1959. The only film appearance she made was in the 1947 film, Boy What a Girl!.

Slam Stewart Trio "Slamboree" from Boy! What a Girl! (1947)

Despite her immense skills, Booker’s career was cut short by the changing tides of musical taste in the early 1960s. Booker found herself struggling to find work as jazz fell out of popularity, but she eventually settled back in her Philly hometown and began playing at local piano bars. At the Mystique on Spruce Street, Booker won over old fans and gained new ones with her enchanting performances.

Beryl Booker | "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" 

During Booker's last years, journalist Thom Nickels became a good friend and gained unprecedented insight into the feisty and independent-minded artist. During their talks he discovered that she’d earned acclaim from Nat King Cole, received Christmas cards from Lena Horn, and urged her buddy "Frankie" Sinatra to record "Little Girl Blue" - which he did. Nickles said Booker was a self-made woman who turned racist attitudes on their heads in the Jim Crow South.

Beryl Booker Trio | "Don't Blame Me"  

“She used to talk to me about traveling through the South when she couldn't get into certain restaurants with her band,” recalled Nickels. “When Beryl was hungry and wanted a hamburger, she would do anything. So she would say, ‘I'm really an Indian princess; you have to let me in,’ and conned her way into a lot of these no-Blacks-allowed restaurants all throughout the South. She was a trickster. She was a handful. She was highly talented and extremely funny. Sometimes outrageously so.”

Beryl Booker | "Byased Blues"

Even with her aptitude, Booker was unable to achieve lasting success in the music industry. She continued to struggle with alcoholism and financial problems throughout her life. Booker died in 1974, at the age of 52.

Since Booker's death, Nickels has repeatedly advocated for her inclusion on the Philadelphia Walk of Fame, insisting that she should be remembered for her jazz contributions.

“I always thought that she deserved to be in the Hall of Fame because she was a real Philadelphia personality,” said Nickels.

Beryl Booker | "Ebony"

Though she enjoyed only a brief moment in the spotlight, Booker has left a lasting legacy as one of the first African American women to play jazz piano professionally. While the musician was beset by personal and professional hardships throughout her career, she managed to continue to inspire and influence new generations of jazz listeners.

It is tragic that someone with Booker's talent and accomplishments is not better known today. However, her story is an important reminder of the obstacles faced by female musicians during a time when the jazz world was very much a boy's club. Booker's piano work on Lady Love, Billie Holiday's 1962 posthumous album, is a testament to her talent and artistry.

Billie Holiday with pianist Beryl Booker | Lady Love