Pianist, vocalist, composer, and fierce innovator Henry Butler transitioned July 2, 2018, in the Bronx, New York, as the result of metastasized colon cancer. His final tour was with his Jambalaya band (Bobby Bryan, Fred Cash, and Adrian Harpham, every one of whom he loved), in Beijing, China, and Melbourne, Australia, six weeks before he left us. He was 69.
Butler’s music was, and is, “encyclopedic, precise, and wild” (Jon Pareles, New York Times, 2018). No one has ever captured man and musician so well in so few words. “He commanded the syncopated power and splashy filigree of boogie-woogie and gospel and the rolling polyrhythms of Afro-Caribbean music. He could also summon the elegant delicacy of classical piano or hurtle toward the dissonances and atonal clusters of modern jazz. He could play in convincing vintage styles and sustain multileveled counterpoint, then demolish it in a whirlwind of genre-smashing virtuosity.”
Blinded by glaucoma at birth, Henry Butler was admitted to the Louisiana State School for the Blind (now the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired) at the age of five, and cycled back and forth between Baton Rouge during the school year and the Calliope Housing Project in New Orleans where he lived with his family.
With no piano in his home, he memorized every piano melody he found interesting on the LPs his mother bought from bargain bins in local stores. When she brought home Fats Waller, and he heard “Viper’s Drag,” that was the turning point, as he memorized LP after LP until he could get to a piano, in the neighborhood or back at school. By the age of 16, Butler was not only performing regularly but arranging and composing for the groups with whom he now worked nights while he continued to attend school days.
Although the piano was his first instrument, it was not his only. Over the years, he mastered baritone horn, valve trombone, and drums, and when he was in high school, he began formal vocal training. He received his BA at Southern University, Baton Rouge, under the masterful tutelage of the clarinetist Alvin Batiste, mentor to many jazz and blues musicians, and went on to earn his master’s in vocal music at Michigan State University.
National Endowment for the Arts fellowships allowed him to study with Sir Roland Hanna, and to work with Cannonball Adderley and his pianist, George Duke. He also spent time with Harold Mabern, had a private lesson at the home of New Orleans’ original piano genius Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, and played co-bills with James Booker often enough to absorb Booker’s unique ideas and techniques.
Butler performed as a soloist; with his blues groups—Henry Butler and Jambalaya, and Henry Butler and the Game Band; with his traditional jazz band, Papa and the Steamin’ Syncopators; and with the 11-member big band Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9, as well as with many other musicians from James Booker to Jonathan Batiste.
He recorded with a wide range of musicians, including Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Odetta, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Cindi Lauper, Ivan Neville, Corey Harris, Freddie Hubbard, Papa Mali, Irma Thomas, and Leo Nocentelli.
Intensely independent, Butler crafted a musical legacy that followed his own energetic path, constantly open to the extraordinary interconnections that he heard, to the ways that one genre hungered to be united with another to create a freshness previously inconceivable—he wasn’t on the commercial-marketing plan, but the this-is-sound-magic plan. Unless he were weaving through new territories, heading down unexplored paths as an artist, there seemed no point to him. For his time here, he saw no other way to live—open, seeking, willing, and discovering.
Henry Butler viewed himself as a teacher. And he did teach in the professional sense—at the Performing Arts High School of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and at Eastern Illinois University; and in many workshops and master classes across the country. He also taught in every rehearsal, every sound check, every gig, every conversation he ever had. He saw himself as always teaching, and always learning. He was always hoping we could step up into a better version of ourselves—musically and personally. “It is what we are constantly doing on this journey here, becoming more of who we can be.”
Acutely aware of what it takes to be an independent blind person, in 1993 Butler organized his first workshop for blind/visually impaired teen musicians, in North Carolina. It laid the groundwork for the camps he would conduct in different locations across the country from 1994 until 2003, when he established what he thought was a permanent home, at the University of New Orleans. The camps provided first-class instruction in performance skills as well as an introduction to adaptive technology. The first New Orleans camp is the subject of the documentary The Music’s Gonna Get You Through (2010). Barely two weeks after the second camp, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, decimating the city, the camp at UNO, and Butler’s home—including his 1925 Mason & Hamlin piano, unpublished compositions, scores, masters, and an enormous library of musical material in Braille. The camp never reopened, and Butler never lived again in his birthplace.
Because he had taken up photography years before, he was able to capture some of the devastation as part of his exploration of the sighted world’s relationship with the flat representational image and its power. His photographic work spans people and place, celebration and loss, capturing the deep emotional tone all of that implies, and is featured in the documentary Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers and included in the exhibition Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists, which has been touring since 2009.
Following Katrina, Butler moved to Colorado, and then to Brooklyn, New York. He spoke often of still looking for just the right place to settle down: tranquility, nature, clean air, great food…and a thriving international music scene.
While his early albums were jazz recordings (Fivin’ Around, 1986; The Village, 1988), Butler increasingly turned to New Orleans music and the blues. His 1990 album, Orleans Inspiration, was followed by Blues & More Vol. I in 1992, a brief return to jazz in 1996 with For All Seasons, and then Blues After Sunset in 1998.
Working with Delta blues-influenced guitarist/vocalist Corey Harris on a duo album, Vu-Du Menz (2000), was what Butler called a “magical collaboration.” After releasing a power-packed, all-electric, blues-rock album, The Game Has Just Begun, in 2002, Butler took things even deeper with his Homeland (2004). In 2008, his first live solo recording, PiaNOLA Live, was made possible because pianist/composer/producer George Winston had copies of many of the masters lost in Katrina. In 2014, the 11-piece big band Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 released Viper’s Drag, Butler’s last CD.
In spring 2015, Henry Butler was diagnosed with colon cancer. Following surgery, he was back on the road, performing from Kentucky to Paris even when the cancer metastasized to his liver in 2016, and then, despite alternative and conventional treatments, continued to spread and grow. His will was extraordinary.
In addition to performing around the globe, he also played close to home—at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Lincoln Center, where he created programs such as one on the great New Orleans piano tradition, sharing the stage with patriarch Ellis Marsalis and Jonathan Batiste, one of his many former students. Closest to his heart, however, was Bar LunAtico, in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where he took command of its small stage with an intimacy you were privileged to witness.
He performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival from its inception in 1970, when he was 21, through 2018, when he gave three performances, including a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. He only missed the 2015 Jazz Fest, when he was recovering from surgery.
Butler knew the history, and the stories, of all the music he played and had been shaped by, including classical, opera, jazz, blues, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, rock, and country. If you threw him a musician’s name, he could tell you his or her story. (That was true right up until the last 18 hours of his life.) You could shout out a title, and his fingers immediately found their place on the keyboard and that unbelievably rhythmic left hand mated with his jazz-influenced right one, and if you were fortunate, you were witness to those extraordinary, lightning-cracking fingers blurring across the keyboard, plucking and shifting and slipping the notes into places they had not yet inhabited so they could create a sort of new world order. It’s how Henry Butler saw everything/everyone—with this intense desire to bring you along for a deeper ride if you were open and game for the adventure. He was grateful for every moment, every experience, every person he encountered until his last slow, smooth breath.
Henry Butler is survived by his love and longtime partner, Annaliese Jakimides, and a brother, George. At Henry’s request, there was no memorial service.