october 2008

TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview

Henry Butler: NOLA In His Soul

By David McGee

'Simple songs are wonderful and vulnerable: they're wonderful because you can change them; they're vulnerable because they're subject to modification. It depends on how you look at it. One way is more constructive and the other is maybe less constructive but still true.' (Photo by Michael Crook)

One of the prodigiously gifted musicians of our time, New Orleans native Henry Butler has a way of infusing his native city's soul and pulse into whatever he's playing—and when it comes to what he's playing, it's best you know some geography. Blinded by glaucoma at birth, he began playing at the age of six, began classical training at age eight, and, as a vocal student in high school and college, sang German lieder, French and Italian art songs and even classical arias while earning a Masters degree in vocal music (he attended Southern and Michigan State Universities), Butler has explored not only the jazz and blues he feels most drawn to as an artist, but also Caribbean, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian styles. With the support of his Michigan State mentor Alvin Batiste, the renowned jazz clarinetist, Butler was awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants to study with keyboard giant George Duke, Cannonball Adderly's Quintet and the late master of the 88s, Sir Roland Hanna. His education also includes a long afternoon studying with Professor Longhair, which is a whole other kind of classroom experience. Beginning his recording career in 1986 with a jazz trio (whose members included, variously, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and Jack DeJohnette), Butler was always drawn by the muse of Crescent City music and what Taj Mahal would call "the natch'l blues." He heeded this siren call on record most vividly in his 1998 classic album, Blues After Sunset, and in his collaboration with Delta blues-influenced guitarist/vocalist Corey Harris on the 2000 album, Vu-du Menz. His latest release, PiaNOLA Live, is not a new studio effort, but rather a collection of live performances culled from two decades' worth of tapes, copies of which, Butler found out to his delight, had been kept in storage by his friend and producer George Winston; Butler's masters, you see, were destroyed, along with the rest of his home, in Hurricane Katrina. PiaNOLA Live embraces all that is special about a special musician: its song selection ranges from his own ebullient celebration of his native city in "Orleans Inspiration" to readings of monuments such as "Dock of the Bay," "Old Man River," and "You Are My Sunshine," that will have you hearing those songs in a different way altogether, to hearty, unconventional celebrations of his own influences in Longhair's signature "Tipitina" and in Billy Preston's "Will It Go 'Round In Circles." Throw in the old chestnut "Basin St. Blues," and what you get on PiaNOLA is a succinct summation of 20th Century New Orleans music.

TheBluegrassSpecial.com caught up with Butler in Denver, where he now resides, and chatted him up about how PiaNOLA Live came to be and solicited his thoughts about a home town to which he will always be spiritually connected, even if he can't live there anymore.


Even though it reflects 20 years' worth of performances, PiaNOLA Live is remarkably seamless-hard to believe it's not one continuous concert recorded on a single night.

Henry Butler: I really like the way it actually happened, and it was time for me to do a live record. When you do a live record, everything is on the line. You have to be able to produce, you have to be able to perform and make it happen in front of an audience. For one reason or another most people choose not to do live records. I think I'm going to do a few more. Maybe not the next record, but I'm not sure about that. But at some point in the future I definitely want to do more live stuff.

I understand these were tapes that survived Hurricane Katrina when the rest of your home apparently didn't.

Butler: The truth is, a lot of these tapes I had but they did not survive. First of all, I've known George Winston for over twenty years and I've brought him in to record some stuff over the years. Usually when I'm in Northern California we try to record something live or most of my live events out there, especially if they're solo events. So I had to rely on him for copies of these things. I definitely lost a lot of those masters.

Did you lose your entire home along with the tapes?

Butler: Yeah. Everything that was on the bottom floor where my musical equipment was—piano, masters, scores, clothes—all that was lost.

About the music on the record, one aspect of your performances here that I enjoyed and appreciated is the deep feel of the church in your playing. I think immediately of "You Are My Sunshine," which suddenly sounds like a hymn, and the opening of "Tipitina" reminds me of a hymn of invitation I used to hear in a Southern Baptist Church when I was growing up.

Butler: Amazingly, the hymns of many denominations sound pretty close. There's a lot of similarity between what some Southern Baptist hymns sound like and, say, Lutheran, Episcopalian or Presbyterian hymns. It's really hard to tell the difference unless you're looking at the denomination, unless somebody told you you were going to a Presbyterian or Episcopalian church and you're aware of that when you're listening to the hymns. Over many years of my life I've been to all those denominations and kind of gleaned what I could from singing in the various types of choirs, playing in the Baptist churches. I feel very fortunate, man; more than most people I know, I've been able to play and study all of the western styles, including many of the religious music dialects. It's so much fun for me. As I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do with a song and how I'm going to put my stamp on it, many times these things will come up, this little gospel influence or this Presbyterian or Baptist influence. After thinking about this over many years, and trying to find out why this happens, I've come to the conclusion that some of us have smaller musical personalities, some of us have larger ones. And some of us who have larger musical personalities have many aspects to that one personality. One aspect may feature, say, a little jazz, maybe another aspect features Latin, another aspect features some kind of church experiences. So it's like the whole body of humanity. Humanity is one body with many, many cells; and we as individuals are like the individual cells. And if we ever learn to work together, we could create a wonderful body of humanity.

You made reference to putting your own stamp on songs. On that note, you interpret two bonafide classics, "Dock Of the Bay," that is so identified with Otis Redding, and "Old Man River," the original and definitive version being done by Paul Robeson. But you don't try to take on the originals; you find your own way into those songs. And once again the gospel influence comes through, I believe, in "Dock Of the Bay"; "Old Man River" almost sounds like a saloon song, a torch song, the way you do it.

Butler: (laughs) Well, Paul Robeson did it pretty straightforward. We have a little bit of a lilt to it, sort of infusing it with more of the southern African-American experience, and at the same time understanding that this was a Broadway piece; this was showtime forty, fifty, sixty years ago. Really it's a matter of what you can bring to the experience. When you choose a song, or you choose a piece, in my opinion you should definitely try to use some creativity to enhance the piece. The piece is just a vehicle that we use to further our own creative tools. I don't teach as much as I used to, but when I'm teaching that's how I approach things with my students. Anybody who learns to sight read can sight read; it's like eating and sleeping. Anybody can eat and sleep if they allow themselves to do it.

butlerSo is your message to your students not to come to this material with any preconceived notions, but to find out what it's saying to you?

Butler: My message is to suggest that we look at a piece, maybe play through it a few times and keep an open mind, yes; keep an open mind. And then we start trying to figure out what we're going to do with it, how we're going to make it our own piece, because that's the bottom line. Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett-if you have an audience with any piano player, or an audience with any artist, they don't want to hear their piece regurgitated back to them. They respect you a lot more if you can add something to the vehicle.

Right, there's cover bands out there that'll play the piece exactly as it was recorded, if that's what you want to hear.

Butler: Well, yeah. They've decided to use their creativity in a different way. They've found ways to promote themselves as a cover band, so their creativity is going into the business aspect of it. That's okay. They have to find a way to use creativity one way or another.

For yourself, finding a new way into the songs on this album, is that a long trial and error process? Or do these songs speak to you immediately about what shape they should take?

Butler: It depends. I feel like I've been in this thing for more than four decades, so for me it's not that hard to figure out how you want-let me go back and say sometimes it's more difficult. If it becomes more difficult, I don't put the song down totally, but I put it aside for a bit because maybe it's going to need more work than I have the time to give it. When I find something as simple as, say, "You Are My Sunshine"-and let me say, the simple songs are often the great ones-I mean, Jimmy Davis couldn't have known how great that song could have been; if he had had the musicality and the intellect to really do more with that song, he would have. But as it is, it's a great, simple song that other crafts people could take and put all kinds of stamps on, like Ray Charles. I mean many country people. The thing is, that's the good thing about a simple song-it's so easy to change, to modify. I've done that song in so many ways in live performances. I've recorded it in two ways. I have one arrangement of it on my Game Has Just Begun CD that's a little more pop sounding, pop-country; and then I have this one, which I like because it allows me to do more on the piano, allows me to stretch out in some ways, still keeping the melody pretty close to the original melody, a few embellishments here and there. I always say that simple songs like that are wonderful and vulnerable: they're wonderful because you can change them; they're vulnerable because they're subject to modification. It depends on how you look at it. One way is more constructive and the other is maybe less constructive but still true. Anything that's vulnerable can be changed.

Another remarkable aspect of this album is your vocal performances. That part of your art that seems to have been undervalued critically over the years, but your singing on these numbers has so much soul, so much deep feeling.

Butler: I don't think people underrate my singing so much as they think they hear more pianistic stuff. They tend to want to deal with that more. They don't necessarily underrate the singing, which I'm happy about. I came to singing as a pianist. I started playing around with the piano when I was six and started taking lessons when I was eight; by the time I actually decided to focus on singing I was a pretty good player. And I approached the voice, and I majored in voice in college, really as a pianist, and as a musician, as opposed to just being a singer. So in some ways it gave me a little more leverage, I think.

You also mention in introducing "Will It Go 'Round In Circles'' how influential Billy Preston was to your R&B development. What wisdom did he impart that you stays with you today?

Butler: Her certainly learned a lot from Ray Charles. He confirmed a lot of things for me. I used to play those licks that Ray played, especially this one lick that pianists like to play; it's a lick based on a certain arpeggio, starting on the fifth degree of the chord. The lick winds up on the third degree of the chord, whether it's on the tonic or the four or on the five; you hear people using that lick a lot-Huey "Piano" Smith used to use it, Professor Longhair used it a lot. Indirectly I think Billy Preston got the lick from New Orleans, because Ray spent about two years in New Orleans, and everybody down there played that lick, from Esquerita, James Booker played it from time to time, lot of those people who hung out at the Dew Drop Inn wound up using that lick. You know, Billy affirmed, in my opinion, the historical significance of a lot of things he played, but also his phrasing-because by the time I actually started listening to him I was getting to be fairly good. "Will It Go 'Round In Circles" came out in '73; so I didn't need a lot of elementary stuff from him. He, for me, was confirmation of a lot of things. At that time I was in grad school, when "Circles" came out, and he'd had a few things before that-"Nothing From Nothing"-and, you know, some of those licks he played I think I started using them more, knowing that they must have been okay.

They worked once so they might work again?

Butler: That's exactly right.

Did you keep in touch with him over the years?

Butler: I didn't know him personally.

Oh. So it was strictly his music.

Butler: His music. What I could hear from other people who had played with Ray Charles, that kind of thing, about how he might have done things, how he did things, but almost everything I heard him do pianistically I heard Ray Charles do maybe in slightly different context.

'I approached the voice, and I majored in voice in college, really as a pianist, and as a musician, as opposed to just being a singer. So in some ways it gave me a little more leverage, I think.'
(Photo by Keith I. Marszalek / NOLA.com)

When you reviewed the material you had that became this record, did the thought occur to you and George that you were assembling a tribute to New Orleans music? These songs are so resonant of a certain tradition in New Orleans music, including your own composition, "Orleans Inspiration."

Butler: Well, we knew that it was New Orleans-laden, or full of New Orleans flavor, and I also knew that's kind of what I have been doing for the last ten years or so. I didn't have a problem with that. And I also knew that I was becoming more and more an ambassador for New Orleans music, especially since I couldn't live there after Katrina. New Orleans music is in my soul, in my heart. I still do other things-I do jazz from time to time but most of the gigs we book these days are for the kind of things you hear on this record.

What do you hear from your friends in New Orleans about the city? In what state is it according to your sources?

Butler: Here's what I observe when I go down there—and I go down there quite a bit. I love the people down there; the people are so sincere and so wonderful. I blame the politicians, who were greedy and corrupt and slimey. I don't think they're really trying to help the people. There have been many projects started by the rank and file down there and the people try to help the people who start these projects, but they're like little symphonies without conductors. Nobody in the political arena winds up supporting these things. They've got an agenda, and I'm not saying I know exactly what it is. But a lot of the political people are stalling for time, because they know if a lot of these people lose their property the developers will get it and the city will become a totally different place.

They're going to need somewhere between 40 and 70 billion dollars just to do the levee system. But they're not willing to commit that and nor is the political establishment, whether federal, state or local. So if they're not going to do it, they might as well give the whole thing up. And I know that's harsh. But the truth is, if they're not going to do what needs to be done, they might as well let the city go. A lot of people are going to get hurt, we're going to lose a lot of people in the process. But you know the Republicans didn't do anything to help; the Democrats took over Congress, they didn't do anything to help. You can't just blame this on one party. Here's the bigger problem: Because nobody's willing to commit the dollars we'll need to fix these levees and to really properly-I'm going to digress a little bit. When I went to Holland in March, I met a couple of the engineers who were in New Orleans. And they told me they meet with some of the right people down there, saw all the stuff and they suggested to them what ought to be done, sketched out all that. And they knew before they left that nothing was going to be done. Apparently people in the Netherlands had to come to grips with something like that back in 1953, when they had a big hurricane. So they committed the money to put together the system they needed, and they haven't had any problems. But you cannot do anything on a wing and a prayer; prayer only helps you when you're ready to help yourself.

My man was down there recently—W—George W. Bush—touting the fact that he sent 126 billion dollars down there. Well, with 350 miles of levee system, 126 billion dollars isn't going to do anything. One hundred twenty six billion dollars includes FEMA's time down there, when they botched a lot of things; includes the salaries people got for maybe not doing as much as they should have done. That was really thinly stretched. Now the levees are leaking already.

As much as I'd love to go down there, and my talking with a couple of people who understand the environmental effects that people might be feeling down there, from a health standpoint it's not safe to be there too long. There's one guy who suggested that maybe you might see in the next five to ten years, more auto-immune diseases there. Apparently there were about 37 toxic dumps overrun by flood waters in and around the city. So he's thinking that you'll see more lupus, more MS, staph infections. It's frightening, and I know the people living there don't want to hear that. I feel so bad for them.

The bigger thing I wanted to mention was that if they're not going to commit the money that needs to be allocated to fix the levees and to help the residents get proper housing, that kind of thing, then they might as well just give it up. If we wind up losing New Orleans, we're making the cultural footprint so much smaller, because most other cities in this country are so homogenized and so sterile, in a way. We only have a few cities that have been constantly adding to the uniqueness of this country. We can say New York is one, some Appalachian towns, San Francisco had a little time when it was adding some uniqueness, and maybe there's a smattering of other cities. But we have 350 million people who are living in mostly bandwagon type cities. I have to fault the politicians first, because they haven't done much to help.

I want to ask you about one other contribution George Winston made to your album. There are several ways to enjoy this music, one being to follow along with George's liner notes that explain what you're doing technically, for those who want to get in that deep. I found it tremendously illuminating to read his notes and follow along with your music.

Butler: Yeah. I wanted it in there because I know George. A lot of people don't know, but George has not only information but a working knowledge of a lot of piano styles. He can perform in the stride style, if he wanted to he could probably do ragtime, he understands what guys like Teddy Wilson did when he played, and he's a guitarist—he does some slack-key stuff. He's a harmonica player, too. So I admire that. He's got good ears, so I really like working with him; I like having a guy who not only has good ears, but I like having an objective sound board to bounce things off of; it does a lot for me when we're putting together a program like this. We have more things in the can that we hope to put out in the next two, three, four years. We've talked about putting four or five volumes out. But I have another project that does include some Appalachian music. I'm writing stuff for that.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024