Henry Butler
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Henry Butler

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Music

The best kept secret in music

Press


"Henry Butler plays New Orleans rum-house piano with a rolling thunder that sounds like he is channeling Professor Longhair and McCoy Tyner in each hand." - Rolling Stone

"Mr. Butler revels in fluency and facility, splashing chords all over the keyboard and streaking through solos with machine-gun articulation." - The New York Times

"Boldly straddling the boundary between down-home funk and jazz improvisation." - Billboard

"He's the pride of New Orleans and a visionistical down-home cat and hellified piano plucker to boot." - Dr. John

"Butler simply produces more ideas and commands more techniques for articulating and developing them than one is accustomed to hearing from a single artist." - Chicago Tribune - Various


Henry Butler's name is not a household word, but over the last decade he has established himself as the finest all-around pianist in New Orleans, a city known for its piano masters. Butler is equally at home in jazz, blues, or r&b, and has toured with the Verve Big Band as well as being an acclaimed club performer in his own right. He is also something of a historian of New Orleans music, and can present a one-man chronicle that reaches back to the days when Jelly Roll Morton was helping invent the music now known as jazz in the red-light district of Storyville.

In the second-floor concert room of the Funky Butt club, Butler sits at the grand piano and shows how the Caribbean mambo beat came into New Orleans music, was adapted by Professor Longhair, and mutated into the basic pulse of Crescent City dance music. His fingers trace a delicate filigree of ragtime, and inject modern harmonies and dazzling single-note runs into standards like "Basin Street Blues." Across the street, in Armstrong Park, Butler fronts his crack band at a summer Jazz Park event. Alternating between grand piano and electric keyboard, he runs through a set that includes a tribute to Longhair, with Butler wailing the lyrics in eerie evocation of the Professor's idiosynchratic style, jazz instrumentals, and a guest set by New Orleans stalwart Eddie Bo. Truly a musicians' musician, Henry Butler blends old and new, and preserves New Orleans's reputation as the birthplace of musical masters. - PBS.org


New Orleans piano virtuoso Henry Butler flexes his musical muscles on his new album, Homeland

Striving to describe New Orleans-native Henry Butler's astounding piano playing is not unlike trying to describe New Orleans itself. There's a regional flavor to it, but it's also a robust gumbo of styles and emotions, a soulful amalgam of grace and speed and whimsy. Henry doesn't bother trying to describe his music himself; he plays it, and leaves it to others to apply labels to it. What might strike a listener first when hearing his music is the speed with which he delivers his percussive pianistic flights of fancy. But there's so much in it: there's a precision and elegant intensity of focus on every note and melody, there's the blues from the Delta to Chicago, there's ragtime, classical, funk, gospel, R&B and more. As an example of this fusion of styles, he plays his first composition, "Paradox," written at the age of 16. It resounds like a poignant rendezvous of Joplin, Gershwin and Chopin.

A warm rain is falling today on New Orleans as Henry sits at his grand piano, and talks about his music, and his latest CD - his 8th release - entitled Homeland. The title comes from a new song that he wrote with lyricist/guitarist Vasti Jackson, about the courage and fortitude required to defend and embrace America. "In order to have a strong homeland," he said, "you need to keep things open for debate. You need to allow for greater self-expression. And I see the reverse happening now."

Born blind in New Orleans, he left the city at the age of five to go to a boarding school, the State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge. He remained there, benefiting from their vital music program, until the age of 17. "It was a great school," he said, "both for academics and music." Even before attending that school, he was drawn to music, primarily the visceral gospel singing and playing he heard in church. "I felt the music," he said. "I felt it through my whole body, my whole being." He also would visit a neighbor's piano, as there was none in his own home, and "play around on it." But Henry wasn't just banging on it, as most kids do. "I would always find a note," he said, "and then always try to find a note that sounded good with it."

At school, he started formally studying the piano at the age of eight, though he said at first he would have preferred being outside playing football and other sports. "I was volunteered to take piano lessons. `Volunteered' in the military sense of the word. I didn't have any choice. And since I couldn't fight it, I got into it." The lessons paid off, as Butler was a natural musician, and had that rarest of abilities - perfect pitch. He not only developed his own unique style on the keys, he was also a fine singer, and soon became both a drummer and a sax player. But piano remained his first love, even before his feet could touch the floor. "I could just barely touch the pedals at first," he said.

Within months of taking lessons, he was being showcased along with a good friend, playing piano at other schools and astounding those in attendance with the amazing dexterity and soulfulness he brought to everything he played, whether it was blues, classical, or anything in-between. "I got a lot of notoriety locally for that."

Asked how a blind man masters the piano, he said, "You're not supposed to look at the keyboard anyway. It's like typing. You learn the keyboard based on the position of the keys, and you don't have to look at it. And that works. If you look at the keyboard, you have another barrier that you need to surpass." He also attributes his virtuosity on the keys to his early start: "Learning anything when you're young is the time to do it," he said. "You're wide open. There are no barriers, and nothing to stop you from learning."

He started playing professionally with a band at the age of 14 in Baton Rouge. He did all the arranging for the group, though he was its youngest member. He would play the separate parts on the piano for each member of the band to learn. "Whatever I had to do to get them to learn their parts, I would do," he said. Often he would write out arrangements in Braille, and dictate them to his music teacher, who would then transcribe them for the other bandmembers, who were only partially blind.

He attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he majored in voice and minored in piano. Despite this focus on singing, however, he always knew piano was at the heart of his musical expression. "Piano was my first love," he said, "and it still is. But I also love to sing." After college, he began playing with a series of bands, and made his living as a musician. A lesson with the legendary Professor Longhair in the late seventies (to whom he dedicates the album's final track, "Ode To Fess") gave him new insight into his approach to the keys, which changed his style forever. "He said, `If you didn't play the piano so hard, you could move a little bit - ASCAP.com


Discography

Homeland - 2004
The Game Has Just Begun - 2002
Vu-Du Menz - 2000
Blues After Sunset - 1998
For All Seasons - 1995
Blues & More, Volume 1 - 1992
Orleans Inspiration - 1989
The Village - 1987
Fivin' Aroudnd - 1985

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

New Orleans native Henry Butler is a virtuoso jazz and rhythm & blues pianist, a schooled vocalist naturally imbued with gospel credibility, a fierce performer and an expressive composer. "Once I sit at the keyboard, it's right there," says the 51-year-old Butler. "I have an instrument on which I can express anything I want." Calling himself a perpetual "work in progress," Butler, a critically lauded jazz recording artist and an accomplished photographer (all the more startling considering Butler has been blind since infancy), returned to his roots with Blues After Sunset on Black Top Records, an album of straight ahead New Orleans piano blues.

Born in the musical hotbed of New Orleans, Louisiana, Butler was attracted to piano at a very young age. By the time he was seven, he had joined the glee club at the Louisiana School for the Blind, where he was already studying piano. He was playing R&B and gigging professionally by the time he was 14, and went on to study voice in high school. Butler attended Southern University in New Orleans. Once there, he fell under the spell of jazz giant Alvin Batiste, who quickly became Butler's mentor. Batiste taught Butler how to improvise, and the importance of spontaneously playing what's in the mind's eye. With Batiste's help, Butler began adding the jazz legacy of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to the Crescent City R&B he'd absorbed from Eddie Bo, Tommy Ridgley, James Booker and Professor Longhair.

After graduating from college, Butler plunged into performing around New Orleans, playing his own mix of jazz and R&B. He went on to earn a master's degree from Michigan State University before returning to New Orleans in 1974. Once there, he began gigging with every important jazz and R&B musician in the city, including Charlie Haden and Batiste. While teaching at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Butler spent a few very intense afternoons in the living room of Professor Longhair, learning Fess' shuffle patterns, trills and parallel thirds and sixths. "Fess showed me how he approached the piano and mainly taught by demonstrating," recalls Butler. "I listened and tried to emulate what he had shown me."

Butler moved to Los Angeles in 1980 where he gigged and worked as a talent development consultant for Motown Records and the Stevie Wonder organization. After sitting in with bassist Charlie Haden, Butler's fortunes changed. He recorded his first album, Fivin' Around, for MCA/Impulse! in 1986. After a second MCA/Impulse! release, The Village, Butler's reputation as an important force in the jazz world began earning him hordes of new fans. Critics raved about a virtuoso pianist who mixed soul with brains, and about a live performer who consistently knocked audiences off their feet with his lightning-fast runs. "Mr. Butler revels in fluency and facility, splashing chords all over the keyboard and streaking through solos with machine-gun articulation," said The New York Times. "Boldly straddling the boundary between down-home funk and jazz improvisation," added Billboard.

Butler recorded two albums for Windham Hill, 1990's Orleans Improvisation and 1992's Blues And More, before heading back to New Orleans in 1996. He released For All Seasons that same year on Atlantic Jazz, again to massive critical acclaim. He won the 1998 "Best Of The Beat" Award from Offbeat magazine for Best New Orleans Piano Player, and continues to impress critics, fans and fellow musicians with his massive talents. Butler is committed to the blues and is excited about expanding the form in ways only he can. "Henry Butler is one of the artists laying the foundation for the 21st century," says Alvin Batiste of his former student. "Henry Butler is my all-time favorite musician," says pianist and recording artist George Winston.

The 1998 release of Blues After Sunset found Butler playing some of the most innovative and challenging piano blues since the heyday of Professor Longhair and James Booker. Drawing inspiration from 1920s stride piano, 1940s bebop, 1950s R&B and 1990s avant-garde, Butler brings his technical ability and soul-deep passion to all of his material. "He's the pride of New Orleans and a visionistical down-home cat and hellified piano plucker to boot," raves one of Butler's most famous admirers, Dr. John.

Butler's stride bass figures and swirling right hand have led at least one critic to describe him as "McCoy Tyner in the left hand, Professor Longhair in the right, the best stride-and-blues-based modernist you've ever heard." "Butler simply produces more ideas and commands more techniques for articulating and developing them than one is accustomed to hearing from a single artist," raved The Chicago Tribune.

While Butler no doubt appreciates the accolades, he's always looking within himself for new sounds and ideas. "I like being in a place where I can pour out my soul," he says of his love of the blues form. And his return to his