Walter Booker, 72; Jazz Bassist Worked With Vaughan, Monk

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Walter Booker, a bass player who provided the rhythmic foundation for Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan and many other prominent jazz musicians, died Nov. 24 of cardiac arrest at his home in New York. He was 72.

Mr. Booker, who spent his formative years in Washington, came to the bass at a relatively advanced age, first picking up the instrument at 26 while serving in the Army. He had completed two years of medical school at Howard University in the early 1960s when he left his studies to pursue music as a full-time career.

Known for his precise, resonant tone, Mr. Booker was quickly recognized as one of the elite bass players in jazz, working for extended periods in the 1960s with singer Betty Carter, pianist Chick Corea, trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. He also toured widely with Washington singer and pianist Shirley Horn.

Mr. Booker formed one of his most significant partnerships in 1969, when he joined the Adderley brothers' quintet, featuring Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto saxophone and Nat Adderley on cornet. For six years, until Cannonball's death in 1975, Mr. Booker toured the world with the popular group, which pioneered the catchy yet sophisticated style of music known as "soul jazz."

Working in several groups at the same time in the early 1970s, Mr. Booker was in one of the last ensembles led by visionary composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. From 1975 to 1981, he was the bassist for singer Sarah Vaughan.

"They were more than colleagues," Mr. Booker's wife, Bertha Hope-Booker, said of her husband's many associations with renowned musicians. "They were friends. All the music he played, he imbued with something different."

After moving to New York in 1964, Mr. Booker studied with Homer R. Mensch, a faculty member of the Juilliard School of Music who had played under conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Mr. Booker, who played a Viennese bass built in 1792 that had been salvaged from the dusty basement of a German church, became known for his bowing technique, his sure intonation and his ability to play high, accurately pitched notes. He was also known for his animated performing style, often swaying from side to side.

"He was a 'dancing' bass player," said his wife, a jazz pianist and composer in her own right. "It was like he and the bass had this connection."

Walter Monroe Booker Jr. was born Dec. 17, 1933, in Prairie View, Tex., and moved to Washington in the early 1940s, when his father joined the faculty of the Howard University medical school. (He later was the head of the pharmacology department.)

The younger Mr. Booker studied clarinet and piano, attended D.C. public schools and graduated from high school at the Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina. He was a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he played alto saxophone in the concert band.

In the late 1950s, while serving in the Army in Europe -- he was in the same unit as Elvis Presley -- Mr. Booker developed his interest in the bass. After returning to Washington, he began to play in jazz bands, most notably the JFK Quintet led by Andrew White, while attending medical school.

In New York, Mr. Booker designed a recording studio based on the geodesic principles of Buckminster Fuller. His studio became a gathering place for many musicians who later had celebrated careers, including Angela Bofill, Nat Adderley Jr., T.S. Monk, Noel Pointer, Airto Moreira and the jazz-rock group Weather Report.

In the 1980s and '90s, Mr. Booker worked regularly with Nat Adderley, pianist John Hicks and, in recent years, his wife. He also led groups that performed Brazilian music, which he occasionally played on guitar, and the works of jazz pianist Elmo Hope, his wife's first husband. In the 1990s, he led workshops at the New Sewell Music Conservatory in Washington.

Mr. Booker appeared on more than 275 albums before making his first and only recording under his own name, "Bookie's Cookbook," for the Mapleshade label in Upper Marlboro in 2000. He gave his final public performances in December 2004. Suffering from prostate cancer and other ailments this year, Mr. Booker asked that his bass be brought to his hospital, where he could play it during his final illness.

His marriages to Yvonne Blakeney and Maria Smith ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, of New York; two sons from his first marriage, Randall Booker of Miami and Russell Booker of Philadelphia; a son from his second marriage, Krishna Booker, who is a percussionist with Sergio Mendes, of Los Angeles; three stepchildren, Monica Hope, Kevin Hope and Daryl Hope, all of New York; a sister, Marjorie Booker of Washington; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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