Juini Booth, a versatile and widely heralded bassist who worked with a vast swath of jazz artists over a career of nearly 60 years, died July 11 at Kenmore Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. He was 73.
His death was announced on the social media accounts of the Sun Ra Arkestra, of which Booth was a longtime member. Cause of death was not disclosed, but his older sister, Mary Booth-Bowden, told The Buffalo News that Booth had been in declining health for six weeks after suffering a broken hip in a fall at his home.
A force on both the acoustic and electric bass, Booth accrued a remarkable résumé that spanned the spectrum of jazz talents and styles. Among his associations were Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Chuck Mangione, Eddie Harris, Sonny Simmons, Shelly Manne, Freddie Hubbard, Hamiett Bluiett, Chico Freeman, and Steve Grossman, as well as the Sun Ra Arkestra.
He was probably best known, however, for his three-year tenure with pianist McCoy Tyner, with whom he made three albums for Milestone Records: Enlightenment, Song of the New World, and Atlantis. Booth and drummers Alphonse Mouzon or Wilby Fletcher created an insoluble rhythm section that locked in with Tyner’s left hand, giving the pianist some of the strongest support of his solo career.
Tributes to Booth flowed in from across social media. Smalls Jazz Club owner Spike Wilner recalled “his peaceful and gentle demeanor and slender frame – with [a] bebopper’s heart and the soul of the warrior musician.” Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts counted Booth among “the sweetest, most soulful people.”
“He was a great jazz bassist and an interesting gentleman who was soft spoken with few words,” recalled keyboardist and producer Tom Schuman. “He communicated mostly through his instrument and his deep eyes.”
Arthur Edward Booth, Jr., was born February 12, 1948 in Buffalo, New York to Arthur Booth Sr., a railroad porter, and Mary Booth (née Walker). Both parents died in 1961, when their son was 13. His curious nickname developed because his older sister Mary was unable to say the word “Junior” as a child. Over the years, it was spelled in a variety of ways on album covers and concert flyers—including Jiunie, Junie, Joony, Jooney, Joonie, Juni, and Juney—but Juini was his preferred spelling.
The younger Booth began playing piano when he was about eight years old, switching to bass when he was 12. “I always had this dream that I wanted to play bass with some great jazz people,” he told podcaster Jake Feinberg in 2020. Thus at 16, he would use his late father’s railroad pass to travel about two hours east to Rochester—“a little bit more progressive than Buffalo was, music-wise”—where he could play with the likes of Chuck Mangione and Sal Nistico.
Booth told saxophonist Richard Tabnik that his most important influence was Pittsburgh-born bassist Sonny Dallas. “He’d play LP’s on 45 rpm to hear the bass better and learn his lines[,] then, he’d think: ‘How would Sonny Dallas do it?’” Tabnik wrote on Facebook. “He became THE Juini Booth on the day that he said: ‘how can I do it differently than Sonny Dallas?’”
After graduating from Lafayette High School in 1966, Booth moved to New York City. He stayed in the home of drummer J.C. Moses, who became a mentor, and quickly began getting work with Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, and Dollar Brand—often on the recommendation of Moses’ friend Paul Chambers, who gave Booth gigs that he didn’t want anymore. He also found his way into the avant-garde scene, working with saxophonist Sonny Simmons (and playing on his album Music from the Spheres, recorded in 1966 and released in 1968). Word spread quickly about the new bassist in town, and by 1967 Booth was playing bass with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. During his brief tenure in that storied group, he met another short-term member, pianist McCoy Tyner.
After leaving Blakey, Booth toured with Freddie Hubbard for three years, followed by two years with the Tony Williams Lifetime. During this period, he played with Gary Bartz, Marzette Watts, and Larry Young as well, before Tyner hired him for his quartet in 1973. He remained with Tyner until 1976, playing on three albums and several tours. He also embarked on a 1974 tour of Japan with Takehiro Honda and Masabumi Kikuchi.
After the summer of 1976, Booth moved back to Buffalo and established his home base there. He worked thereafter as a freelancer, building a presence in Cleveland with saxophonist Ernie Krivda and pianist Neal Creque, and in Los Angeles with saxophonist Chico Freeman, as well as maintaining relationships in New York. (Most prominently, Booth recorded and toured frequently with saxophonist Steve Grossman in the 1980s.) He joined the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1989 and continued playing with them until his passing. He also served as the music director at Buffalo’s Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center from 1981 to 1982 and at the Niagara Arts Council in St. Catharines, Ontario, in the early 1990s.
Booth is survived by his older sister and by a son, Chad. He was predeceased by a second son, Maasai.
In addition to ceremonies in Buffalo, a tribute to Booth is planned at St. Peter’s Church in New York City, but details are still to be determined.