Henry Butler Doc Debuts Sunday

[UPDATED] “Okay, can you swing it now? Can you swing it, please?” 17-year-old Natalie Clark implores New Orleans piano legend Henry Butler.

“Uh, what do you mean?” an amused Butler asks.

Differing music aesthetics aside, moments later Clark and Butler hammer out a passable—and decidedly non-country—version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

Butler’s piano chops are undeniable, but the new PBS documentary The Music’s Gonna Get You Through shows Butler’s chops as a compassionate and deft educator and mentor as well.  The documentary chronicles Butler and his students’ experience in his Creative Music and Jazz Camp during the summer of 2003.

Clark and Butler don’t just share a love for music: they are also both blind. To varying degrees, all of the students at the camp are visually impaired.  Butler credits music as having a tremendous positive impact on his confidence, self-esteem, and outlook on life.  The documentary allows an intimate view on Butler imparting these valuable lessons—not always musical—to his students.

Creative Music and Jazz Camp is a weeklong experience that brings together visually impaired students from around the nation. Butler tailors the camp so that, while teaching musical principles, his students can also use the skills they learn in other areas of their lives.

Butler sees a serious problem facing education of the visually impaired today.  He says fewer visually impaired students go to college now than 25 years ago and that 74 percent of the visually impaired community lives in poverty.  Nevertheless, Butler shows confidence that the music is going to get them through.

Over seven days, Butler challenges his students with his “gentle but firm” pedagogy, and his students challenge him with their sometimes frustrated, sometimes inspired progression through the curriculum.

“They were like rebels. They were like, ‘How can you tell me how to do something?’” Butler says, often seeing his young self in his students.

His students frequently offer blunt and humorous commentary on their world, briefly allowing sighted people if not an opportunity to see the world through their eyes, then through their experiences as visually impaired students and musicians.  The interaction between Butler and his students is extraordinarily genuine and touching.

The documentary follows up with a handful of the students four years later.  Some of them have stuck with music as their primary interest while others have not. All of them are applying the lessons in confidence and independence that Butler imparted to them. Butler says his true measure of judgment of a student is what they do with their skill after they leave him.

“I know that if they really are doing something, I will run into them,” Butler says.

Update 5:12 p.m.: The Music’s Gonna Get You Through premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS affiliate WLAE-TV New Orleans. It will re-air Saturday, May 1 at 8 p.m. For more information on the documentary including a trailer, go  to its Web site.