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The Butler Did It: An Interview with pianist Henry Butler
By Brian L. Knight

When one thinks of New Orleans’ musicians, pianists always come to mind. New Orleans has served as both the birthplace of jazz and also as the breeding ground for R&B. As a result the city has nurtured great piano players such as Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Tuts Washington, James Booker, Eddie Bo, Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, Art Neville and Harry Connick Jr. To compare one of these pianists to another would be an attempt in futility as each player has been a major contributor to New Orleans music. Henry Butler is yet another New Orleans ivory tickler who sits amongst the pantheon of New Orleans pianist players. Butler takes the attributes of all of the aforementioned players and has molded his own style. He can play blues, ragtime, jazz, classical – you name it. To exemplify his diversity, we only need to look at some his latest projects: he recorded a great blues album with guitarist Corey Harris,Vu-Du Menz(Alligator) and also a solo blues album, Blues After Sunrise (Alligator); he recently played Indian music for a New Orleans workshop; and one of the highlights of the 2000 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was his jam session with the avant-garde funk trio, Medeski, Martin and Wood. Blind since birth, Butler has never let his vision impairment get in his way. Besides his playing, Butler has taught piano in Illinois and is also an avid photographer. The Vermont Review spoke to Butler from his home in New Orleans.

 

 

Vermont Review: When I last spoke to you, you were about to head of and play some Indian music. How did you get involved with doing that?

Henry Butler: There is a guy from Bengal. They started an "East meets West" series and they have had several people perform with him from the New Orleans area. I guess they saved me for the last concert.  They had people from professors to regular jazz musicians and whomever they thought that could do that. I was honored to be invited to it. The concert came out very well. He played the sarod. It is like a guitar. It has a few more strings than a guitar.

VR: Was that your first foray into playing Indian music?

HB: I have listened to Indian music for years – East Indian, North Indian. I have listened to all kinds of Indian music but this was my first time actually playing …….( a change of mind occurs) well, when I was teaching at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a little more than twenty years ago, we used to Indian Rajas with the students.

VR: What do find appealing about Indian music?

HB: Well, the same thing I find appealing about any music. That it is the vehicle for improvisation. It is a vehicle for performance. I don’t get caught up in the type of music as much. I like everything. I think go more towards the essence of music, which allows for me to perform in any style or in any genre. I let you guys decide what to listen for or how.

VR: Well how about when it comes to the structure of a song?

HB: Every piece of music has form. Every piece of music has meter. It changes depending on necessity. That is some of the beauty of Indian music and Pakistani and some of the music of Third World countries. What is does have, more than the music of America, is odd meters. It is refreshing that way. But really, the joy is basically the same regardless of what music you play.

VR: You were born in New Orleans and now you have returned after a little time away from the Crescent City.

HB: I got back in 1996. When I first got back, I played a lot around here. I sort of rediscovered the territory. Now I am paring down a lot and doing  more national stuff. I think it is good for me.

VR: Did you play a lot nationally while you were away?

HB: I did a lot of teaching and I did some national performing. I was teaching in Illinois- I taught there for about six years. My performances at the time, and my ability to perform in cities and town was limited mostly to kids…….because of my teaching.

VR: It seems that teaching is important to you. Are you a product of teaching?

HB: I spent twenty years in school – from my elementary school years to my private school years. So I would have to say that I am very much influenced by what I got from my teachers. Not just in the academic setting but also the teaching I got from Professor Longhair, Harold Nabor, George Duke. And to a lesser extent, McCoy Tyner. All these people I studied with. Its good to get what you can get from other people and at the same time, its is wonderful to be able to use the creativity that you have.

VR: Whom did you listen to as a youth?

HB: When I was just getting started I was listening to a guy in high school who was phenomenal. It’s really unfortunate that the nation never got to hear this guy. He was a blind guy, pianist, singer and composer. His name was Robert G. Howell. Bobby had phenomenal technique in classical and jazz piano. He was one of the first. He is still living in Baton Rouge. We had a school full of pianists. When I was in first and second grade, there were a lot of people in the high school part of the institution who were just wonderful. There was another guy named Roosevelt Hall. Not as technical as the first guy but he was wonderful. We had a strong music department. As I got older, I started listening to local musicians. By the time I got to high school, I started listening, at the urging of my teachers, to people like Oscar Peterson. I was also listening to classical pianists and people like Beethoven. By the time I got to college and I was a junior and senior, I listened to Art Tatum…….. McCoy Tyner……Hermeto Pascoal. Whoever was coming down the pike at the time. I then listened to a lot of Afro-Cuban stuff. Part of what we had to do was dissect it. We tried to describe stuff in the matter of what country they were from. It was part of our studies.

VR: Jumping ahead. Your latest album,Vu-Du Menz, is a collaboration with guitarist Corey Harris. How did you become involved Harris?

HB: I met Corey Harris when he was living in New Orleans and I though he had a fresh sound. I have heard other young people but they were mostly non-black………I always wonder why young black people never got into their music. I could never figure out why they couldn’t face themselves or appreciate their own culture. So when I heard him, I thought "Man, that’s a great thing." And then some time passed and we jammed a little bit. Than he asked me two do a couple pieces on his album Greetings from the Garden (Alligator). Than we stayed in touch and we both decided that it would not be a bad idea to do a project together.

VR: The album sounds great.

HB: He is a good person work with. We had a lot of fun doing that.

VR: One of the many things that you have done in the past year that have really stuck out is your jam session with Medeski, Martin & Wood?

HB: Oh, I really enjoyed that. I have been seeing them since then. My hope is that we are going to work together soon. I am really hoping……..I am going to do whatever I can to make that happen.

VR: I am going to name some musician’s names. I would love to hear what you have to say about them. Kermit Ruffins?

HB: He certainly has charisma. He is one of the trumpet players from the city that I really like. I don’t think he has the technique of Nicholas Payton or Marsalis has but he is certainly is a showman.

VR: Pianist Dave Torkanowsky (of Astral Project)?

HB: He is a wonderful pianist. I hear a lot of what I done in the past when I hear him. He has a lot of facility – he is an arranger, a composer……I like his work.

VR: Horace Silver?

HB: I love Horace Silver. He is the embodiment of effective simplicity. Not that he can’t do more but he knows when to do it. Very few pianists can simplify like that.

VR: James Booker?

HB: A real character, a wonderful musician. He certainly had his own niche, his own folk music corner. I like his work.

VR: Cecil Taylor?

HB: (laughter) I love Cecil Taylor. I don’t know quite what he is doing know, but certainly what he was doing during the early 1970s. He had a different voice.

VR: Andrew Hill?

HB: I don’t listen to him that much. The little that I heard of him, I though it was ok. He was certainly another voice.

VR: Dave Holland:?

HB: I love Dave Holland. He is a fine musician. Wonderful personality-in and outside of the studio. I thought it was fun working with him.

VR: Speaking of personality…….does every piano have a personality?

HB: Yes, but again, it is up to the pianist to give it life.

VR: When you go out on stage, do you set any goals for yourself?

HB: Yes……..to give the best concert that I can give. To hopefully inform, encourage, inspire and have fun myself.

VR: How much does the audience itself affect your playing?

HB: I think we are both, meaning me and the audience, instruments. We both play each other. In a real concert setting, I am the focus and they are the focus too. When I am saying that they are the focus, I am first focussing on how I can give them what it is that I have and that is music. And than, I send that out to them. Tones go out to them, they receive it and they send their consciousness back to me. It is always an ebb and flow. It keeps going back and forth. What they gave me is a certain kind of energy where I can bring it to another level. It is all so relative and it is all so dependent on how each individual personality perceives or how one feels about what he/she is doing. There are so many factors.

VR: Is there such a thing as a tough audience in New Orleans?

HB: In New Orleans, there is a lot of raw musical talent and different styles of music that one can play in. Unfortunately, there are some styles that call for a little more education. All of the people that come to listen to music in New Orleans don’t have that. That’s ok. There is a small jazz audience in New Orleans that is capable of handling that kind of music. There is a larger R&B and funk audience……… and brass bands. It is just the nature of the city. It has been working her for a while.

VR: Is there any New Orleans musicians that we should know about?

HB: I know that you have heard of Nicholas (Payton)…….Branford (Marsalis)……..Donald Harrison…….Terrance Blanchard…….Irvin Mayfield.

VR: It seems that you are a fan of the trumpet..

HB: Well, it is a city for trumpet players. There are some good pianists her too. I would have to say that there are quite a few that have proficiency but they don’t always have uniqueness. But trumpet players here, they can usually find a little more uniqueness……..at least right now. That is not the same for pianists. Without sounding pompous, I think I am one of the few unique forces on the piano here. I might even be the only one. That doesn’t mean that the other people can’t play. There are people who her who are good technicians - it wasn’t like I was trying to be unique, it happened because the way I had to learn. Of course, I also like the work of Shannon Powell – a wonderful drummer. Shannon could actually be one of the best drummers to come out of here.

VR: You said that you are a unique player. Another thing that makes you unique is your passion for photography.

HB: I think I had to wind up getting involved in something like that. It was so convenient for me to ignore the visual arts world. There was a whole arena that I was not paying attention to. After talking to some people about it, I started paying attention to how people see things and how people perceive the so-called visual arts. I though I would get my best experience by becoming a participant. So I started taking pictures in 1984 and on and off, I have been doing it every since.

VR: Do you focus on particular subject matter.

HB: I do some portraits and a lot of nature…..a lot of landscapes, a lot of sunsets, sunrises. Whatever strikes me. When I am ready to go out, I bring an assistant with me, and I am going to take a picture of a building, I will have the assistant tell me about the color and spatial situation or if there is decorative stuff at the top.

Check out more of Henry Butler at http://www.alligator.com/