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Henry Butler Site:

Henry Butler

    Henry Butler
    By Mark Gresser

Henry Butler is one of today’s most renowned and diverse piano players. Based in New Orleans, Henry has a wealth of training and is equally fluent in the jazz idiom as he is with blues and boogie. He is also known as a photographer, which is even more interesting given that he has been visually impaired since early childhood. The following interview was from a conversation that Mark Gresser and Henry had during the summer of 2000, soon after his release of "Vu-Du Menz" with Corey Harris.

M) Henry Butler is a newcomer in the field of New Orleans piano magic. Tell me about your place in the spectrum of NOLA piano players.

H) Of course, New Orleans has had a lot of great piano stylists. Most people, music connoisseurs, know about Jelly Roll (Morton) and even before that, Henri Gottschalk. There’s been a long line of wonderful piano exponents. Most of them were composers as opposed to just performers. I’ve listened to Gottschalk. His conservatory training lead him to write in more of a classical idiom. He was an improviser as well. Not in the same way as jazz and blues artists are, but he was able to improvise and compose in the various styles of countries he visited routinely. There’s Lil Armstrong, one of Louis Armstrong’s wives, who was a New Orleans pianist. I tend to deal more with piano styles from the 40s on. Thinking about people like Champion Jack Dupree, going on into the late 40s, Professor Longhair and Tuts Washington. There’s also Esquerita, a flamboyant New Orleans pianist who was one of the forerunners to Little Richard. Most people know of James Booker who hit his stride in the late 60s and 70s and died in 1982. I fit into this line of players and composers. I’ve probably added some devices both in the rhythmical sectors and in the melodic and technical areas.

M) You’re certainly much more funky and hard than lots of those players. You can do what they’ve done but you’ve taken it somewhere a city that’s produced the Meters would go. Tell me about your influences and what was formative to your approach.

H) I was fortunate enough to get more training than, say, Prof. Longhair or maybe, Booker. I do use some European influences, but I love using influences from all over the world. I’ve studied a lot of ethnic influences. I was listening to Brazilian, Panamanian, African and music of the Balkan states back in 1969, ’70 and ‘71 with the guidance and coaching of Alvin Batiste. One of the things we had to do when we were students was to transcribe a lot of the stuff we were studying. We had to transcribe not only the melodies but also the chord structures, and we had to learn the different accents and rhythmical shifts that separated one country from another. The Latin countries have very particular rhythms—especially, when you look at Afro-Cuban rhythms vs. the rhythms of Brazil vs. the rhythms of Trinidad and Tobago. We became very familiar with that before it was fashionable.

M) In terms of training, what and with whom?

H) I went to the Louisiana State School for the Blind. I started taking lessons there when I was 8 years old when I was volunteered by one of the teachers. I added drums when I was 9 and learned some of the rudiments and then took up lower brass in 7th grade. The year before, when I was 11, I started arranging for small ensembles. The next year, they gave me one of the school bands to arrange and write for. This was a dance band with 5 or 6 horns, a drummer and no bass player. When people ask me how I got so active in my left hand, it’s because when I started playing in the group I had to play the bass lines and be heard over 5 or 6 horns and a drummer and sometimes a guitar. I had to be heard.

M) You did tend to hit the piano very hard but somebody told you that you’d be able to play better if you played lighter. Tell us about Batiste, George Duke and Fess. What did they teach you?

H) Well, Prof. Longhair told me that. My left began in that situation in 7th grade. I started playing professionally in the 9th grade. We had a bass player so I had to learn to keep my left hand more restrained so I didn’t conflict with him. Later, as an independent study in 11th, I had to work with a high profile band in Baton Rouge. I had to write arrangements for probably 85 percent of their material. From there, I went to Southern and met Alvin Batiste. He took note of my talents but I didn’t become one of his students. That wasn’t until 1969 when I was a junior. This is when I began studying ethnic music in earnest. He arranged for my getting a grant to study with Cannonball Adderly. I was observing his business practices and studying piano with George Duke. George had just left Frank Zappa’s band before coming in with Cannonball. George understood me, probably more than the other guys I had studied with because he had just finished his Masters at San Francisco State, so we both understood the lingo. He’s the guy that confirmed that I should develop the two handed approach where I play two melodies or double melodies or did contrary motion things in both hands, what some people have called the two fisted approach to piano. He helped with repertoire too. I then studied with Roland Hanna. He was more of a linear pianist vs. rhythmic. That was totally different ballgame. I was more in a McCoy Tyner vein as a jazz pianist. I really liked him and met him a lot. Hanna was more melodic. He helped me with my melodic concepts.

After graduating from Michigan State in voice—I actually graduated from both schools as a voice major in Liberal Arts—I went back to New Orleans to teach at the Performing Arts High School of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. I was the vocal coordinator there. We taught theory, sight singing and vocal lit as well as technique. Sometime in 1975, Alvin Batiste thought it would be interesting for me to meet Prof. Longhair up close, so he arranged for me to take a couple of lessons with him. We went over to his house and had a couple of marathon lessons and spent a couple of weekends there. He was the guy who told me that I should lighten up on the keys—that if I played a little lighter or softer, I would move faster. He basically taught by demonstrating. He played some boogie, some shuffle and then he asked me to play something and he told me, "This is how I would do it." He was a teacher and he also kept the piano players together on the video "Piano Players Rarely Play Together." It was him that was the catalyst and the mediator. He was the go-between with Tuts and Allen Toussaint in an artistic and personal sense. He kept them together. At that time I was still playing mostly jazz, mostly in the Tyneresque style. It didn’t mean I couldn’t play the New Orleans stuff but I just wasn’t publicly doing it much. In 1977-8, I decided that I wanted to do more of that in clubs and I started taking solo gigs. James Booker started coming to my gigs in 1978 and gave me a lot of encouragement, saying stuff like "Oh man, you’re really getting’ into the energy right now." I left New Orleans in 1980 for LA, trying to decide what I wanted to do. I was playing restaurants when I met Hal Davis, the producer for Motown. Later, I met Stevie Wonder and we were working with a couple of people who he was thinking about producing. I was till mainly jazz with some R&B but I decided to focus when I met Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. We played "Days of Wine and Roses" and he got really psyched and almost overnight he helped me to get a record deal. My first deal was on MCA. It was a jazz record with Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, Freddie Hubbard called "Fiving Around." My next record was called "The Village" and was recorded in NY with Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Alvin Batiste and Bob Stewart on tuba. My third record was done for Windham Hill and was sort of a New Orleans record called "New Orleans Inspiration." I had a New Orleans cast on that with Leo Nocentelli, and then I did "Blues and More," which is a sort of jazzish blues solo CD. Eventually, I moved into more roots.

M) If you weren’t in New Orleans now, where would you be?

H) Probably in New York. I was teaching at Eastern Illinois University from 90 to 96 but after my mom died I had to deal with business so I went back to New Orleans. If I hadn’t done that I would’ve gone to New York and would’ve stayed more jazz. I wanted to come back to New Orleans to have the freedom to do anything I wanted.

M) You’re a photographer. To be a visually impaired photographer is an interesting combination. Tell us about that.

H) It was in 1984 with the encouragement of a lady artist friend. We went to an Art exhibit and I wasn’t getting much emotionally out of it. Intellectually, it was OK. I could understand what everyone was saying. From that experience, I decided I needed to participate in some way in the Visual Arts world. I thought photography would be the easiest way to get into that. I do it partly intuitively. I seek out information from an assistant, whoever I bring with me and the trick is in choosing the right assistant. Somebody who is articulate and has a well trained eye and is sensitive.

M) Oh, you’re the visual cortex and they’re the retina. I see that. Was that your only show?

H) I’ve had exhibits all over the country, New York, Miami, San Francisco, LA. I was published in American Photographer, Spin Magazine, several newspapers…

M) What’s in your record or CD collection?

H) Man, I’ve got probably, well, stuff is in storage because I’m moving but I have between 5 and 6,000 CDs. There’s lots of blues, lots of piano stuff, lots of classical, some opera, some art song, lots of symphonies and stuff. Some gospel, some…well, almost anything you can think of in terms of the music of the Western hemisphere. There’s a lot of European stuff, a lot of Judaica. I’ve studied Judaic thought and practice. I’ve also studied the philosophy and practices of some Eastern religions and thought.

M) Your next project after leaving Windham Hill and "New Orleans Inspiration" and "Blues and More" was "Blues After Sunset." It was probably the record that introduced many people to you. Now, you have released "Vu-Du Menz" which is a collaboration with Corey Harris. How did that come about?

H) I heard about Corey Harris when I came back to New Orleans in the Fall of ‘96 and I wondered who he was. It had been my experience that a lot of young black people were trying to get away from blues and so, it was surprising to hear that this was a young guy who was trying to do real rootsy stuff. I wanted to meet him. I heard him at the Funky Butt and he really sounded good. He didn’t sound like a 24, 25, 26 year old guy and so, eventually, I went to meet him. I finally got to talk with him at some point and we played and jammed. He asked me to play on a couple of pieces on his "Greens From The Garden" CD. From that point, I may have initiated the conversation about maybe doing a documentary together. We both agreed that we should do that and we started working on "Vu-Du Menz" in August of ’99. I’d go up to Charlottesville and we’d do a lot of preproduction stuff including writing together. "Vu-Du Menz" was a magical collaboration. Since I wrote a song called "Voodoo Man," Corey suggested that we call the CD Voodoo Mens. There’s an interesting way of spelling it. If one were to look at it, it’s actually MENZ. It’s sort of the way people used to pluralize "men" in the South.

M) What was the chemistry? Is there a future with that kind of collaboration? What about other people?

H) It was a lot of fun. He’s asked me to play on his next record. He’s going to do a solo record and I’m working on my own solo project. If we can get together, I’ll do some things on his next record and I’m really looking at doing a band record next. Snooks Eaglin was on a lot of the cuts on "Blues After Sunset" as was Mark Kazanoff. I’ve also done stuff with James Carter, the Afghan Wigs and Soul Asylum as well as having traveled with Grover Washington. I just worked with a guy doing a songs from the South CD and we just finished a Sunpie Barnes thing. I was on two songs and Lazy Lester and a few other people were there. I did stuff with the Night Crawlers, a New Orleans funk street band too.

M) Any inside info on new pianists coming out of New Orleans to watch for?

H) Well, Davell Crawford, Tom McDermott, Josh Paxton are pretty much it.

M) Where do you think the blues is going?

H) If I have anything to do with it, it’ll continue to be soulful, maybe a little more intense and, at some point, a little less predictable.

M) Like Chris Thomas King?

H) Yeah, there are a lot of young people who have more facility and would like to express their musical personalities in a blues way. I think that’s what’s going to happen. The purists in any field will never be totally satisfied with that.

M) Parting thoughts? Whence Henry the musical Loup Garou with the wicked Left hand. Where is Mr. Butler moving ?

H) I’m perpetually a work in progress. I know we’re going to do more roots records and more blues records. That’s where my heart is right now.

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