Blues Traveler: Henry Butler

Blues Traveler

After the flood, New Orleans-based blues/jazz pianist Henry Butler looks at the bright side.

 
Henry Butler speaks from the piano in the Berk Recital Hall.  
Photo by Fred Bouchard  
   

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Henry Butler's home in New Orleans' Gentilly district went down slow. "My neighborhood took 7.8 feet of water," said Butler during a Berklee clinic that launched the New Orleans Visiting Artist (NOVA) Series in late September, about four weeks after the storm made landfall. Accompanied by a faculty combo, Butler performed the sinuous 1920s blues classic, "Goin' Down Slow," and as his bittersweet tenor intoned, "If you see my mother, tell her to please pray for me," he rolled out heartening fills and robust tremolos on piano. Butler sounded old as the Delta, yet new as today's weather. It was clear Butler had not only survived the hurricane, but was intent on turning any gray into sunshine. He echoed another cockeyed optimist, singer Louis Jordan, who loudly proclaimed, "Every knock is a boost!"

"Every adverse hit brings an opportunity for growth, something good," said Butler. "I'd not be here now but for Katrina. I'm taking the chance to share my experiences with the kids here. Lots of people are helping, sharing their resources, and we're grateful."

Butler, five-time nominee for the W.C. Handy Best Blues Instrumentalist award, is used to seeing life's bright sides. Blind since birth, Butler's not only a complete pianist—combining percussive jazz and rolling zydeco with Caribbean, classical, and rock 'n' roll—but is a world-class photographer, exhibited often worldwide. Butler was the first of several NOVA musicians Berklee plans to bring to Boston to work with students. In the days after his Berk Recital Hall clinic, Butler gave Hammond organ clinics and blues history classes.

"Playing music can be as mysterious as tapping into the ether, absorbing abstract elements and energy," Butler, dressed in black leather, said from the piano. "But it's also practical. People ask, 'How do you know when a player is about to end his or her solo?' It's a feeling, yes, but more tangible elements include the soloist's playing certain notes that let you know how he/she is dealing with the turnaround at hand."

When Butler called his "Blues for All Seasons," faculty saxophonist Dino Govoni jumped out of the gate with a ripping solo that indeed cued its ending with glancing, slow-down phrases. Butler followed with rolling double octave lines, angular boppish lines, and ended his solo with off-the-beat, spiky staccatos. To round it out, Kevin Belz's raunchy guitar called up bayou juke joints, Bruce Gertz caught a tasty bass chorus, and Yoron Israel got in his licks.

Butler claps accompaniment during an organ lab.
Photo by Nick Balkin
 

Butler briefly outlined various approaches to improvisation, giving a couple of examples on "Bye, Bye Blackbird," such as rhythmic (with a choppy Erroll Garner variation), stylistic, harmonic, and textural (in a spare Chicago blues vein). He encouraged students to create their own language, extending beyond the last book they bought or CD they transcribed, to musical explorations of their own culture or geographical locale.

"Music is about mutual team support, having the right information, and turning that information into knowledge through practice and experimentation," Butler said after leading the group on a rendition of Coltrane's "Impressions." "Berklee can give you lots of info and encourage you to study, but the rest is up to you. When you look at books of John Coltrane licks, you want not to become his puppet. I learned to transcribe and then create variations on McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton solos and Bach inventions.

"Will yourself to practice two sessions daily, one solely technique, the other creative experimentation. Every time you play a scale, accent different notes. Caucasian youths don't get much help with rhythm, so listen to me: work with triplets. Learn to play a shuffle beat very precisely." Butler illustrated with a simple bass-line shuffle, then made it more complex, leading to McCoy Tyner–type comping figures. He also recommended listening to Oscar Peterson and Cedar Walton.

Butler bantered a little with the audience, joking about being 143 years old, and saying, "If you have a question, raise your hand and I'll be sure to ignore you." When asked if his black shoes with spring heels helped him make jump shots, Butler never missed a beat: "Yes, I've had to jump a few ravines and hurdles. They're called Z-Coils; they're fun and comfortable. They help me make less noise when I bang my big foot onstage, and they're good for my balance."

Butler recalled a marathon lesson with Professor Longhair, that playful, ageless icon of "Nawlins" funk and frolic. "I was in my McCoy phase, and 'Fess said to me: 'Man! You play too hard! If you played softer, you could move faster.' I've been workin' on that ever since." And Butler closed with his "Ode to Fess": he opened with Taps, laid down a left-hand habaƱera, and eased into lyrics which asked 'Fess to help him with this tribute. It made for a moving manifestation of the Spirit of New Orleans.

Fred Bouchard is a freelance writer and a faculty member in Berklee's Liberal Arts Department.