Author Archives: Henry

Part IV: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World

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Most of the people reading this blog post know that in terms of size, population and depth of economy, New Orleans may not be able to compete with the top 40 or 50 cities in the country.  But musically, it is one of a small handful of towns that can and does offer a unique palette that is full of passion and excitement.

We stated in last week’s posting that what makes the city’s music distinctive has always been the way New Orleans musicians use and vary rhythms. In the music composed by New Orleans natives, the rhythmic variance is an integral part of the musical composition.  This was apparent in the compositions of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and many others who followed him.  (Listen, for example, to his composition, “Bamboula”.)

There were letters written as early as 1786 that describe slaves dancing the bamboula in Place du Congo, which is now Congo Square.  Some 62 years later, Gottschalk composed a piece with the same name.  Gottschalk was born in 1829, and it is noted how at a very early age, between 1831 and 1833, he could hear drumming and singing from the house where he lived and was captivated by the repeated melodies and sometimes melodic fragments.  He would listen until a family member put him to bed.  Also through a nanny, he became intimately familiar with song melodies that were sung by Creoles and slaves.  Later he made several trips to France where he received conservatory training in Paris, and during those visits he was never without a lively recollection of Creole and slave chants.  Some of those chants became full compositions, enriching the work of his unfortunately short life.  He died on December 18, 1869, just over the age of 40.

The bamboula is still the underlying rhythm in musical pieces from native New Orleans musicians.  Many of Professor Longhair’s compositions as well as music from The Meters are based on that rhythm.

You can arrive at the realization of the bamboula by first establishing and repeating a cycle of 4 beats several times: “one-two-three-four; one-two-three-four; one-two-three-four…” As we noted last week, between the numbered beats, we add the word, ‘and’ so it becomes “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-one-and two-and-three-and-four-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-four…”  Within that latter cycle, we create three accents, the first on beat one, the second on the word ‘and’ after beat two, and the last on beat four.  Now it  becomes “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-one-and two-and-three-and-four-and-one-and-two-and-three-and-four…)  Try this rhythmic experience right now – no one’s listening – and let us know how you fared in creating your rhythm.  Your comments are always welcome.  I’m having fun with this and I hope you are too!

H. B.

Part III: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World

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As we continue with Part 3 of this New Orleans music blog posting, we are starting to understand that there is something inherently triumphant in the music itself.  In spite of any laws, restrictive actions, even the taking of human lives, the lineage grew stronger even as the evolution of the music continued.  From the days when the musicians of color in New Orleans drew predominantly on their percussive strengths, to the period between  1870 and the early 1900s when more musicians gravitated to the diverse array of instruments we know today, the harmonies and melodies they used increasingly reflected a deepening awareness of European music.  Yet the foundational rhythms remained African/Caribbean.

New Orleans was and still is considered the birthplace of jazz because of the emphasis on improvisation in the music that was being played throughout the city years before the Sidney Story ordinance became law in 1897.  The purpose of the ordinance was to create a district, a kind of corral, in which all manner of otherwise illicit activity could take place.  What the ordinance actually established was a kind of incubator in which early jazz flourished.  In addition, there were brass bands, military marching bands and musical ensembles associated with the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.  Most of the creative musicians affiliated themselves with these Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs partly because the white insurance companies refused to service their life and burial needs so citizens of color banded together to take care of one another and provide such help.

As stated above, the official year for the beginning of jazz was 1897, but musicians throughout the city were playing creative music quite a few years earlier.  There were competitions between black and white bands documented as early as 1892.

So why does the music of New Orleans sound so different?

The difference is the employment of the rhythmic scheme.  The rhythmic variance – what some people call syncopation – can make the harmonies sound and feel different; it can alter how one receives and perceives melody.  The texture of a composition can become more noticeable and of course the beat makes you want to move, keeps you excited and interested in the music you’re listening to.

It was the rhythmic variation used by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Ferdinand Lemothe (known as Jelly Roll Morton) and others who would come later that seemed harder to play, sometimes harder to grasp except that you know you are enjoying what you are listening to.

Most music that we know can readily be divided into two general rhythmic schemes.  The even eighth note or sixteenth note scheme is probably the most popular one.  The other rhythmic scheme relies heavily on the triplet rhythm.

What is an eighth note and how can we recognize even eighth note rhythmic patterns?

Most jazz, blues, and rock/pop compositions are in what we sometimes call 4-4 time, meaning there are 4 beats to a measure or bar, after which the counting cycle starts again.  (For example, 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4; repeat several times).  If you repeat the cycle a few times, evenly, you’ll also notice that there is a space between the numbered beats you are counting.  In that space, add the word “and”.  Now your verbal count will be “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and”.  If you drop the “d” from the word “and”, your rhythmic flow will be aided greatly.

The other general rhythmic scheme features the triplet rhythm patterns.  This rhythm is used in jazz/blues, and some rock n’ roll; other subcultures may use sequences based on this conception.

New Orleans musicians have a special way of blending these two types of rhythms and we will get into that a little more in our blog post next week.

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Part II: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World


In our last post, we mentioned briefly some of the cultural reasons why New Orleans would become the birth city of jazz — many of its residents, both free and enslaved, came from cultures that featured musical improvisation. The creative energies from these groups were mostly influenced by drums and other percussive elements. These influences would change as Africans, Cubans and other people from the Caribbean began living in close proximity to one another in America. They started hearing and later learning the scales and melodies that were played and performed in their new place of residence.

From 1830 and continuing through the years leading up to the Civil War, the fears that Southern whites harbored toward the free black population in and around New Orleans specifically and in the South generally started to manifest itself in the form of new laws and more vigorous punishment that served to curtail many of the privileges that had been enjoyed by free people of color. Whites who had previously done business with skilled tradespeople and artisans in the black community diverted their business to the white community. Eventually, the economic condition of the entire community of color weakened. Whites were also fearful of the mounting political and social tension between the slave states and the federal government.  These fears came to include the possibility of armed conflict which, as we know, culminated in the Civil War.

Beginning in the late 1700s, enslaved as well as free black people got together on Sundays in a part of New Orleans known as Congo Square. They gathered for ‘funning’ on percussive instruments including the banjo and drums. There was also singing and dancing.  Although there were times when this custom was curtailed, these Sunday festivals continued until after 1880. New Orleans was captured by the Union in 1862 without much resistance. Perhaps, not coincidentally, the city was spared much of the devastation that other Southern cities realized.  Since the city was left intact after its capture, much of the culture remained unchanged.

After Reconstruction, taking the year 1877 as a marker, fear increasingly dominated the lives of many whites in the South. As a result, the rights to own property, realize any type of training or education, or enjoy gainful employment were taken away from blacks through a system of laws known as Jim Crow.  As the Jim Crow laws effectively negated more of the freedoms blacks had previously enjoyed, they found themselves restricted to smaller sections of the city with fewer resources.

One of the blessings of this era is that many of the Creoles, or lighter skinned blacks, started teaching many of the darker skinned people of color how to negotiate new instruments. They taught the various European scales and harmonies that were being used – and indeed are still used – in the music of America.  The syncopation and percussivity started to change the way melodies and harmonies were being heard.  A little more than a decade after the last Sunday festival in Congo Square, jazz was officially born in New Orleans.

In our next blog post, we will cite some of the musical personalities who were active at the very beginning of the jazz tradition and talk a little bit about their styles and how they  used the rhythmic pulse in music.


Part I: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World

Toussaint L’Ouverture By Françoise-Elisabeth, dite Eugénie, Tripier Lefranc, née Le Brun (1797-1872) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crescent City is one of a handful of places in the United States that shows off its uniqueness.  The food, architecture, music, and even the way they talk lets you know that you’re in a land of different expressive content. Why is that?  Perhaps we should stroll down history lane for some answers.

New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French. They controlled the territory until 1763, when Spain took governance over the city and surrounding area for about 38 years.  Under both French and Spanish control the institution of marriage, the forming of intimate relationships, and general political practices were very relaxed. In 1801, the French realized power over the Louisiana territory again. Two years later, Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in what Americans know as the Louisiana Purchase.

While control of the territory was being transferred to the United States, there was a rebellion taking place in Haiti, an uprising led by a person of color — François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Around 1804, refugees from the Haitian conflict started to arrive in New Orleans, swelling the ranks of free black people in the Union’s newest slave state. Between 1810 and 1820, New Orleans had the largest community of free blacks in the nation, surpassing Charleston, South Carolina.  The black community of New Orleans enjoyed great prosperity and realized, on average, a high level of education.

In the period from about 1807 to 1830, there was a raging battle between many of Louisiana’s politicians who wanted to close the door on allowing more immigrants of color to enter the state. Meanwhile the free black French-speaking Creoles fought to enlarge the population of citizens more like themselves.  During this time, New Orleans continued to receive a large number of Haitian refugees, some who came directly to the city and others who came after spending time in Cuba.  In this period of early statehood, the influx of African slaves who were brought into the Port of New Orleans and offered for sale in the city’s slave markets continued.  As the slaves were sold in and around the city, they started mating and marrying Native Americans. These relationships created a new subculture that would eventually affect New Orleans art and musical expression from that time until the present day.

In our next part, we will talk more directly about Africans, French, Spanish, Americans and Europeans from other countries on the continent. We will discuss the impact each group had on the music coming out of New Orleans and ultimately how that music has influenced the music of this nation and the rest of the world.


Mulgrew Miller

Dear friends and fans,

It is a known fact that the audience that buys and listens to jazz is getting older — these days averaging from 50 years and over. The active, popular performers in the art form are also getting older.

Our most recent departure was Mulgrew Miller a jazz pianist/composer/arranger and hell of a player. He first started realizing notoriety in the 70s when he joined the Ellington ensemble- with Mercer Ellington as the leader. He also performed with Woody Shaw (trumpeter), Betty Carter (singer), Tony Williams (drummer), lead his own trio and contributed greatly to a number of jazz exponents’  albums, CDs, and performances. Mulgrew was also the director of the jazz studies program at William Patterson College in New Jersey.


He was born in 1955 in Greenwood, Mississippi and is thought to have had a brain aneurism causing the “great change.” For me, he was one of the greatest, swingingest pianists of his generation– if not the best. He could put you in a trance with the melody or send you flying with his technical proficiency. It was my privilege to witness him in performance with the likes of Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, Tony Williams and his own trio. We’ll truly miss his musical personality.

Here are some suggested discs for your listening and/or purchase:

Also check out: “Work,” “Wingspan,” and “Landmarks.”

He recorded several projects for Novus Records which will not be listed here but are wonderful recordings.

“The Sequel”, (2002) – MAXJAZZ

“Live at Yoshi’s, Vol. 1”, (2004)

“Live at Yoshi’s, Vol. 2”, (2005)

“Live at the Kennedy Center Vol. 1”, (2006)

“Live at the Kennedy Center Vol. 2”, (2007)

Friends and fans, especially those of you who like jazz, what suggestions do you have for strengthening, building this art form? Your comments on this subject, and all subjects discussed here, are welcomed.


A Great Night in Harlem

Performing with Elvis Costello for “A Great Night in Harlem”

Hello friends and fans:

This past weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of performing at the historic Apollo Theater with a true all-star band. Headliners including Elvis Costello, Macy Gray, Chad Smith and Babi Floyd came together with special guests Quincy Jones, Paul Shaffer, Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman. We gathered to raise money for the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund for the Jazz Foundation of America. This program works to assist elderly jazz musicians in need. They provided some assistance to me after Hurricane Katrina, and are constantly helping those affected by natural disasters and other unfortunate circumstances.

I accompanied many featured musicians with the Kansas City Band. Stephen Bernstein created the musical charts and led the group, which included Don Byron, Nicholas Patton, Victor Lewis, Brad Jones, and James Carter.

Another highlight was hearing New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste. He is very musical and has a high level of pianistic proficiency. In my opinion, he is the best pianist coming from his generation. He happens to have studied with me, and now, I’m studying him.

Its great when groups of people, who have accomplished so much, come together and leave their egos at the door, especially when it’s for such a worthy cause.


One World Brooklyn Kids’ Chorus

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Henry Butler with Josh Levine     Photo by Ian McKenzie

Dear Friends and Fans,

I am performing Sunday, as a special guest, with the One World Brooklyn Kids Chorus at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY).

Last week I got a chance to rehearse with the kids. It was a great delight observing how they respond to the music that they are singing, and the enthusiasm and emotional energy that comes with performing in the moment. I’m going to talk more about that; but first, let me speak briefly about their teachers.

Josh, a pianist, bassist, percussionist, and arranger, is a soft spoken teaching personality to whom the kids responded lovingly. Another teacher, who has studied the music of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, contributed a song from that region. Teacher Carolynn also added to the kids’ repertoire from her area of expertise.

I enjoyed the accompaniment of a wonderful guitarist, Robert Secrist, at the rehearsal. Robert’s music is currently a part of my active musical library. Erica Kalick conceived the program. She is truly making an effort to have kids realize, early in their lives, a diversified, multi-cultured, one-world concept.

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As stated before, it was wonderful to observe the kids as they tried to handle the enthusiasm and emotions of the moment, especially the soloists. Listening to the young personalities sing, I could hear and feel them trying to contain the passion and the enjoyment — sometimes it overwhelmed them. They would eventually gain control and focus again.

I always enjoy being with children as lights are clicking on. The joy of seeing them discover, explore, and find something that works, is unmatched.

If you’re in the Brooklyn area, join us on Sunday, May 19th from 3-5 pm for what will be a most inspiring event. See what you think about these kids.


New Orleans Jazz Fest

Dear friends and fans,

Many of you know that I spent most of last week in New Orleans for JazzFest. For our performance last Thursday, I was fortunate to have some of New Orleans’ finest in my band — Raymond Weber (drums), Chris Severin (bass), and Vasti Jackson (guitar).

Every time I play JazzFest, it is heartening to hear the thousands of people in front of me – cheering us on, appreciating our music, and showing enthusiasm for being at one of the great festivals on the planet. While I was there, I met some artists that I’ve admired for many years, heard some excellent bands during the non-festival hours, and I sat in at a couple of places.

I’ve also noticed that the non-festival environment is changing quite a bit. There are a few places that featured New Orleans bands while I was in the city, but most of what I heard came from the jam band circuit. While some of that music was quite good, I am generally drawn to the raw stuff. When I heard Cedric Burnside at D.B.A. my ears perked up, my blood started to flow a little faster, and I started to move to the rhythm — it was fun.

Last Friday, I went to Tipitina’s and heard The Funky Meters: Russell Batiste on drums, George Porter on bass, Art Neville on organ, and Brian Shultz on guitar. When I hear any of the Meters’ groups performing, or George Porter and the Running Partners, its hard for me to deny the attraction that I have for New Orleans.

I’m curious to know what your favorite after-hours JazzFest spots are. Did you hear any particularly good NOLA music at the clubs while you were down there?


Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9

In 2011, legendary New Orleans pianist Henry Butler joined the Millennial Territory Orchestra, Dean Bowman, and Sandra St. Victor for a performance of the early blues at the Lowdown Hudson Blues Festival. For this show, trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein created musical arrangements dating back to the 1890s and 1930s. Following the first performance,Bernstein went on to create new arrangements of Butler’s original work.They performed those pieces at their August 2012 presentation entitled “Early Blues” at Jazz Standard in New York City. With the success of their collaboration, Butler and Bernstein decided to expand on the project. Bringing in a New Orleans rhythm section with Herlin Riley on drums and Reginald Veal on acoustic bass, Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 was realized.

While Butler and Bernstein have an intense interest in the history of jazz music, they have no desire to recreate the past. Delving into the hidden roots of jazz instrumentalization, Bernstein focused on the details, including the addition of a violinist, based on early blues convention. Having recorded many of Butler’s improvisations, Bernstein transcribed what he calls “Henryisms” — layers of Butler’s piano improvisations performed by various members of the band. The result is an unhurried, organic yet musically deep, and irresistibly modern take on some New Orleans classics.

Using a traditional New Orleans palate as a launching point, Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 explore everything from pre-jazz to thoughtful, yet fearless, improvisations. In March of 2013, Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 recorded their first album with producer Joshua Feigenbaum (co-founder, NYNO Records with Allen Toussaint) at Avatar Studios in New York. Their upcoming album, due for release this summer, includes “Gimmie A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer)” by Bessie Smith,“Viper’s Drag” by Fats Waller, and a new arrangement of Butler’s own “Dixie Walker.”


Steven Bernstein by Michael Weintraub

Steven Bernstein

Steven Bernstein is a trumpeter/slide trumpeter, bandleader, arranger, and composer who lives outside of musical convention. He has released four critically acclaimed CDs including Diaspora Blues (featuring the Sam Rivers trio) and Diaspora Suite. Among other awards, Bernstein was voted the #1 Rising Star arranger on the Downbeat Critics Poll three years in a row. Bernstein’s group projects include Millenial Territory Orchestra, the Levon Helm band, and the Grammy nominated Sex Mob.

The Hot 9

Curtis Fowlkes: trombone

Doug Wieselman: clarinets

Peter Apfelbaum: tenor/soprano saxophone

Erik Lawrence: baritone/soprano saxophone

Charlie Burnham: violin

Matt Munisteri: guitar

Reginald Veal: bass

Herlin Riley: drums