Henry Butler once described himself as “a work in progress,” as his aim was to continually challenge himself and the status quo. The brilliant pianist, vocalist and composer accomplished that goal both as a musician and as a man. Sightless since infancy, Butler maneuvered through life with ease, confidence and authority and played the piano the same way. He’d often smile when he knew he’d startled an audience with his piano prowess and ability to jump genres mid-song. He also got a kick from folks’ reaction when, as drummer Herlin Riley remembers, Henry would greet them with “Good to see you.” New Orleans native Henry Butler, a musical genius, died in New York on July 2, 2018. He was 69.
“I think what made him special was a massive intellect and his ability to extract the essence from New Orleans music and beyond,” says fellow pianist David Torkanowsky. “In many ways, he represented the entire lexicon of contemporary American music. I heard him play solo piano one night in Copenhagen and I was convinced then and now that I was listening to one of the important pianists of the twentieth century. He was transporting and beyond description.”
Butler’s first exposure to the piano was at a neighbor’s house when he was six years old. He began taking lessons at the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge (now Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired) and went on to Southern University of Baton Rouge (SUBR) where he studied under the direction of the highly influential educator and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who would become his mentor. Butler became a member of Batiste’s forward-thinking ensemble the Jazztronauts and years later, in 1987, Batiste joined the pianist in the studio to record one of Butler’s finest albums, The Village (Impulse!), which included heavy hitters bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jack DeJohnette and reedman John Purcell, plus Bob Steward on tuba for one cut. Batiste also contributed one stunning composition, “Music Came,” that Butler continued to include in his repertoire through the decades. Many people discovered Butler’s rich baritone on this spiritually compelling cut.
“I like being in a musical place where I can pour out my soul,” Butler once said. He never failed to do just that as a pianist or a vocalist.
“The piano has 88 keys and everyone who plays the piano plays those same 88 keys,” Riley points out. “So it’s quite a feat to develop your own voice so that whenever someone who knows you can immediately identify you on the instrument.”
Riley, who like Butler is fluent in many musical languages, was at the drums on Butler’s last recording, Viper’s Drag (Impulse!), on which Butler was teamed with trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9. “It was a pleasure to record with him. He had a very unique, very intense style and had a lot of chops. He could play very, very fast. I did the whole record with him at Snug Harbor. That was the most fun I had with him on the bandstand.”
Butler went on to earn a masters degree at Michigan State University, though, Henry being Henry, it was not, as one might presume, in piano. Rather it was awarded in voice. That’s the way Butler rolled.
Butler credited Alvin Batiste for setting up, in 1975, the opportunity for the pianist to seek out of the master, Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd. “Professor Longhair told me when I studied with him, ‘You don’t have to play like me—just do what you do.’”
Though Fess’ tunes and identifiable licks would turn up repeatedly at Butler’s performances, he always brought what Bernstein called “Henry-isms” to his interpretations. Torkanowsky points out that Butler not only studied with Byrd but also with George Duke and Sir Roland Hanna. “His piano prowess was unrivaled and it was muscular and came from a deep intellect,” Torkanowsky adds.
The supremely accomplished pianist could move around and through an even familiar tune taking detours from jazz to blues, throw in some classically informed references and land on some funky New Orleans rhythm and blues. His recordings reflected his enthusiasm to simply celebrate music. On For All Seasons, he returned to modern jazz, the genre that first caught listeners’ and critics’ ears. He dug into his hometown roots on Orleans Inspiration and shone as a composer on 1998’s Blues After Sunset, superbly teamed with another eclectic, no-holds barred, sightless musician, the great guitarist Snooks Eaglin. In 2002, Butler also formed his own New Orleans classic jazz band, Papa Henry Butler & the Steamin’ Syncopators. “I really did want a forum for playing more traditional jazz,” Butler said of his enduring interest in pursuing traditional jazz.
Like Fess and other great New Orleans pianists who came before him, Butler has been and will continue to be an influence and inspiration for future generations of musicians.
“I grew up soaking up Henry Butler,” says Davell Crawford, a hugely talented and diverse pianist and vocalist who is a guardian of the expressive flame of innovation and excellence that burned in Butler. “He was a majestic mind and the greatest pianist I ever met and worked with.”
“He’s like one of the fathers of this music and was one of the last remaining people who had the opportunity to experience the greats like Professor Longhair and [James] Booker,” notes keyboardist Kyle Roussel, 30, yet another one of Butler’s devotees. “The only reference I have to those people was listening to recordings and Henry. There are some people who are great at playing straight-ahead jazz but they can’t play stride. There are some people who are great at stride but they can’t play funk. He could do all of that great.”
Earlier in his career, following a period of gigging in New Orleans and teaching at NOCCA, Butler tested the waters in Los Angeles and New York and settled for a time to teach at Eastern Illinois University. All the while, of course he was traveling the world with his music. He finally returned to his hometown in 1996 only to be forced to leave following Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks that flooded his house in New Orleans East. He was welcomed first to Boulder, Colorado and then Denver before heading to New York, where he gained much deserved further recognition for his brilliance and the authenticity he brought to music, whatever the style.
“I’ve always felt like I was one of the New Orleans ambassadors,” Butler once proclaimed. “I think I will always feel that way. I think most of the people that I know who are from New Orleans feel like that. That’s how we came up, that’s what we knew and that’s what we still want to play. Most of the people I know from New Orleans are proud to share the music with the world. I mean it’s so unique you know.”
When Butler entered a room or stepped on a stage his presence was absolute. He laughed heartily, played and sang with passion and astonished unsuspecting audiences and those along his journey with his seemingly endless abilities to conquer the intricacies of music and life.
Henry Butler stands tall alongside those legendary New Orleans piano players like Jelly Roll Morton, Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John who led the way for others to follow. He perpetuated the Crescent City’s reputation as the birthplace of some of the world’s best, most original, innovative and influential piano players. He was a one-of-a-kind amongst one-of-a-kinds.
The soulful sounds of Henry Butler will be greatly missed, though they’ll live on through the lives he touched with his music and determined spirit.