[EDITOR'S NOTE: The world lost a musical maverick this week with the passing of the great Henry Butler. In tribute, we're reposting our December 2017 interview with an artist who left us far too soon].
Once you’ve been baptized in Henry Butler’s New Orleans’ birthed musical genius, which blends boogie-woogie, jazz, spirituals and blues in the traditions of Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Allen Toussaint, second helpings will set your path straight. And if you dig deeper into his celebrated catalog, you’ll regard Butler as a true American treasure, a timeless, one-of-a-kind artist.
Coming to national consciousness with two brilliant records released on the Impulse! label in the mid 1980s, Fivin’ Around and The Village, Butler recalls the time as one of great discovery and recognition.
“It was really interesting working with Charlie Haden,” Butler recalls from his Brooklyn home. “When we'd travel to a new town, Charlie would get off the plane--and you know, he wasn't totally clean then. He would start asking anybody, 'Hey man (adopts high pitched voice), where I can find stuff, man?’ I’d say 'Charlie, you can't do that! Not in the south, especially, you can't.' Of course, when people realized what he was asking, they didn't want to get involved with that.”
Butler taught at New Orleans's Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in the early 1980s where his young charges included Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and Herlin Riley. Relocating to Los Angeles to “get the lay of the land," Butler played piano in restaurants and coached vocalists at Motown. A chance meeting at a local club altered Butler’s trajectory.
“I went to hear Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins play at the Comeback Inn in 1984," Butler recalls. “I wound up sitting in with them, and Charlie liked my playing. He wanted to do more playing together. Later we did a gig with Pat Metheny at the Comeback Inn. There was a line around the block. I can't swear to it, but I think the guy who signed me for MCA/ Impulse!, Ricky Schultz, was in the audience. We did two sets and someone recorded it. Ricky Schultz was the Vice President of jazz at Impulse!; I was one of the first artists he signed for the revived Impulse! in 1985. Charlie and Billy Higgins played on the record.”
Though blind from childhood, Butler has toured on keyboards and vocals (he's classically trained) with dozens of groups and recorded as many records as a leader, his trademark piano and vocal style resonating on releases from Impulse!, Black Top, Atlantic Jazz, Basin Street--even Windham Hill. Also a renowned professor, his many teaching stints have enriched Butler and his students.
"When I was an associate professor at Eastern Illinois University (1990 to 1996)," Butler recalls, "I noticed a big change in my playing from teaching and a heavy practice schedule, and doing gigs on weekends. I focused on dexterity, scale manipulations, harmonic manipulations. Although I knew the "Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns" by Slominsky, I got serious about it when I began teaching at Eastern Illinois. I had one or two students who were advanced enough to tackle it. We would work with different exercises and invert them to use n songs. One student infused the exercises into Jellyroll material.
"That was a time when I chose to use what I was learning and discovering," Butler continues. "I traveled to New York and heard how guys were moving around harmonic scales or progressions. Hearing Kenny Barron gave me something to work on. I also got serious about listening to Muhal Richard Abrams. He was one of the few people I heard who could really play the avant garde stuff; he had enough technique to play anything. I was a fan of AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). I played with Roscoe Mitchell at one point. We formed a group and played everything from avant garde to R&B to straight ahead. I also admire the AACM’s consistently high level of performance."
As a tyke, Butler was attracted to the "the New Orleans guys," he recalls. "The radio stations played local and regional music, that was big then. I heard Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington; Huey Piano Smith had a couple hits back then."
Butler began playing a neighbor's piano when he was 6; she said he had "good ears."
"She told me when most kids play around with the piano, they're usually banging at it but 'you're actually trying to find melodies,'" Butler recalls. "I was in the first grade and I started singing second soprano in a kid's glee club. I began taking lessons in the 3rd grade; my teacher would say 'I was volunteered.'"
Butler's earliest training began at the Louisiana State School for the Blind, where he learned to play valve trombone, baritone horn and drums before taking to piano. Young Henry was arranging for bands by the age of 10--even a band with six horns.
"My left hand was always playing hard, hoping that somebody could hear it," Butler laughs.
He began playing professionally at 14.
"The club owners in Baton Rouge where I attended boarding school didn't care that I was underage," he recalls. "I made it through all of that, and saw some interesting stuff at that age, but I never got into any real trouble myself."
Earning his masters degree in music at Michigan State University, Butler returned to Louisiana where he rose through the ranks, joining Gatemouth Brown's group in the '70s, and soon playing with everyone who came through Baton Rouge, "especially R&B and blues guys, I was always called to play."
How did Butler, a blind musician, write charts for sighted musicians?
"I've used Braille music notation when explaining to sighted people what I want," he replies. "But there are so many ways to get music down for sighted people now. I use any digital synth to put music down in MIDI format, then a notation program to make printed music so sighted people can read it.
"Computers have Braille displays," he adds. "And a gadget drive that when you turn on the computer the Braille pins show up. If you have documents stored there, you go into your file manager to find your documents. The blind are better served now, there is more technology. You've got computers and Braille displays and all kinds of scanning devices. Braille menus are common, especially in chains."
After receiving his degree (he received the MSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009), Butler continued to perform in the south until relocating to LA. In New York City since 2009 post-Katrina, Butler maintains a frenetic pace, currently playing with three, sometimes four, different groups: Henry Butler and the Game Band; Henry Butler and Jambalaya; Papa Henry and the Steamin’ Syncopators; and Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9. He also appeared as himself, playing his original music in the HBO series, Treme.
When touring, Butler plays acoustic piano "with other keyboards for certain concepts.
"I use Roland FX, GX, and NX electric keyboards," Henry says. "Roland has some good piano sounds on their keyboards. I also use the high-end Kurzweil keyboards. They have great piano sounds and great digital sounds, generally. Their libraries are pretty good. I like the Yamaha Motif 8; they have good sounds, not the best piano sounds, but all kinds of sounds you can use, especially if you're doing R&B or more popular musical styles."
If he were to look back over his storied career, what would constitute Butler's pivotal albums?
"My first two records on Impulse! were pivotal for me," Butler says. "They certainly changed my arc. And they changed the level of venues I could play. The record we did with the Hot 9 (Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9) was pivotal. Many of the things we recorded on that record I had played with other groups or solo. Steven Bernstein is a wonderful arranger. We came up with music based on the New Orleans' musical frame; we put our own stamp on it. People began seeing me in a different light from working with that band."
And his legacy?
"If I left the earth tomorrow," Butler muses, "I think people might remember me as an eclectic artist, a person who played in most western styles. Some might say I did all of them well. I definitely am into discovery, and into trying to hear new stuff and see what it's made of. Some people might say that I am sort of a history buff. I not only taught jazz history but I was able to demonstrate a lot of the concepts and principles and tendencies that artists displayed in different periods. I have fun with that. That’s as much as I've gotten out of what they might think of me when I’m gone."