World: How Henry Butler’s Piano Rekindled a Fiery NOLA Tradition

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When the New Orleans pianist Henry Butler reached New York in 2009, the strapping dude with sunglasses and a felt hat looked way younger than 61. Riding a wave of concerts and recordings, Butler, in fact, was a migrant to the city of cities.

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Sightless since birth, Butler grew up in a New Orleans housing project, a hungry mind propelled by Braille to studies at a school for the blind, and on to Southern University in Baton Rouge under the auspices of jazz maestro Alvin Batiste. Batiste stressed a grounding in “the continuum”—the line of jazz from its New Orleans ensemble style origins into different zones, swing to bop to John Coltrane’s sheets of sound, gathering new momentum for which past styles held the potential for improvisations as jazz pushed on. Steeped in blues and the fundamentals, Butler read relentlessly as computer-assisted texts enlarged his options; he earned a Master’s in Music at Michigan State, taught several years at Eastern Illinois, and moved home in 1996. Teaching at U.N.O., playing gigs, and recording, Butler told friends, “Life is good.”

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All that changed in late August 2005 when Butler was forced to flee to Boulder, Colorado, just before the Hurricane Katrina flood wrecked his spacious home on Elysian Fields Avenue and trashed his 1925 Mason & Hamlin piano. In demand for concerts, he slowly regrouped, and finally left Colorado. Career-wise, New York made sense.

Butler spoke in a basso profundo tone, laughing easily. His fingers on the piano moved like lightning, the left hand delivered rocking thunder that shifted in a flash to medium tempo lines, seamlessly slowing down for the right hand to tease out whispers of melody. On Homeland (Basin Street), “Ode to Fess” celebrates Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), the New Orleans blues wizard. From Byrd’s classic “Tipitina,” Butler unspools a lullaby, singing as if to a child nodding off:

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Oh, Professor, oh Professor

You brought me so much joy

I loved your music

Since I was a baby boy.

In 2012 Steven Bernstein, the New York trumpeter, bandleader, and arranger visited Butler’s apartment in Brooklyn. As leader of the long-running Millennial Territory Orchestra, Bernstein had also worked with Levon Helm, Lou Reed, and in 1996 hired Butler for soundtrack work as he scored Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.

Butler and Bernstein got on well, seeing one another over the ensuing years in hotel rooms after concerts; but they didn’t know each other well until that day in Brooklyn. Henry sat at the piano, Steven’s mind racing with possibilities for collaborating. He asked Butler to play certain pieces a second time, absorbing his technique. Bernstein realized that Henry Butler in his polite Southern way had a commanding sense of what he wanted: not a modernist’s pushing-the-threshold but a sound sprung from an older root.

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For their band, to be called the Hot 9, Henry insisted on a rhythm section anchored in the second line beat, the sound of New Orleans street parading with percussive colorings that flowed like a sweet Caribbean river through the 1920s compositions of Jelly Roll Morton to the 1950s rhythm-and-blues pulsations of Fess and Fats Domino, branching out in the 1960s under Allen Toussaint, James Booker, and Dr. John, each with his own impressionist spin, a continuum propelled in recent years with Grammy-winning pianists Jon Cleary and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, whose “Freedom” video of second line dancers is one of pop music’s richest choreographies, ever. The album is plush too.

Himself an adroit arranger and swaggering bandleader, Bernstein discovered something else in Butler: a musical alter-ego. Henry had a totemic persona with his deep, confident voice and a refined privacy with people on whom he relied. Behind the blind man’s shades, Bernstein slowly realized, Butler was a seer, an artist with visions of new music shaped by a tradition he carried. Butler was not a celebrity, for whatever that depraved term is worth; but within the guild, his chops had serious standing.

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“Every concert Henry played—and every song he played—was an event of supreme expression and so much spontaneity in the improvisation,” says George Winston, the prolific pianist whose new release, Night (Dancing Cat Records) is a rhapsodic journey with grace notes in that same Crescent City style.

On Winston’s 2005 album, Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit, the lead cut “New Orleans Shall Rise Again” is a masterly echo of the blues-driven percussive style of pianists like Fess, Toussaint, and Booker whose influence Winston absorbed through hundreds of hours, listening to their records. Winston shaped his own improvisational base line, akin to the style he admired in Butler. The fifth cut on Gulf Coast Blues, “The Breaks,” is a Butler composition with the shimmering range, the expansive roll from Henry’s flashing fingers.

Winston and Butler had worked together in the studio in years past. Winston was co-producer on two Butler CDs before Henry teamed up with Bernstein: The Blues and More (Wyndham Hill Jazz) and PiaNOLA Live (Basin Street). “Henry had beautiful concepts of harmonization,” Winston reflects. “He could make the piano explode at the right moments with his choppy, two-hand style, playing up and down the keys—yet the rhythm was never lost, even though there was no pulsing left hand bass. It’s totally elusive to me how he could keep the rhythm going. Henry was that very rare pianist who played hard-core, straight-ahead jazz, taking it into the deep blues and R&B piano of New Orleans, steering that sound up to another level entirely.”

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As they prepared for the 2014 recording Viper’s Drag (Impulse!) Bernstein at Butler’s behest sought out Herlin Riley, a third-generation New Orleans drummer whose long back pages included road tours with Ahmad Jamal and many recordings and concerts with Wynton Marsalis. Riley’s drumming anchored the second line sound, enlarged by Reginald Veal’s bass, which functioned like a tuba. This was the blueprint Henry wanted. On Viper’s Drag, Butler’s clarion tone moves from ragtime to boogie and Jelly’s jumping “King Porter Stomp,” while Bernstein’s jaunting horn draws energy from the rhythm section. Viper’s Drag became a high statement of the far-flung school of artists who are reworking New Orleans Style, the early 1900s root idiom, old music made new, improvisations stretching out, homing back to the resonant line of melody.

Butler’s roaming piano style floated in this larger idiomatic current. Wynton Marsalis built Jazz at Lincoln by celebrating the music’s evolution from the taproot. “In the Court of King Oliver” on Standard Time: Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance (Columbia), Marsalis lays out a stately line of melody in tribute to Oliver, the cornet player who left for Chicago in 1917, took over the Creole Jazz Band and in 1922 brought up Louis Armstrong who soon went on to the world. Mr. Jelly Lord is Marsalis’ tribute to Morton in the Standard Time series, Vol. 6.

Back in New Orleans, a loosely associated school of musicians was charting similar territory. Dr. Michael White, a Jelly devotee, did several records on the Basin Street label, reimagining the terrain of early jazz. “Sunday Morning” on Blue Crescent sings of the church parades, now extinct, that brass bands once played as ladies in white dresses sashayed on city streets or country roads. Trumpeter Gregg Stafford’s gruff vocals sound out a vision of that past:

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Come together,

Sunday morning.

When I see you,

The light pulls darkness from the sky,

Sunday morning, Sunday morning,

When I see you

We’ll march together by and by.

Aurora Nealand, a reed player of adventuresome vision, did an album channeling Sidney Bechet’s major songs, The Royal Roses, amid a long run collaboration with Tom McDermott, who plays the New Orleans piano as if he lived through every generation. As White, Nealand, McDermott, and others mined the seminal idiom, Bernstein’s collaboration with Butler led to grand concert dates, and a rousing return for Henry at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Henry Butler had the world on a string until the 2016 cancer diagnosis. Friends across the map raised funds for him to take experimental treatment in Germany. At one of his last gigs, a tribute to Jelly at the 2017 New Orleans jazz fest, he was frail as a leaf on the bandstand. He died less than a year later, in 2018, at 69.

“No one had a left hand like him,” Bernstein told The New York Times for its obituary. “It was so strong and fast, and he had such control… the tone, the dynamics, the speed. He did all these things that were so fast that no one else could do them. If you looked at his hands, they were blurs.”

The blur stayed with Bernstein as time rolled on. So much of his work with Henry—deep journeys back to the dawn of jazz, retrofitting new designs in the New Orleans rhythm, circling back to the present—saturated Bernstein’s mental territory even as he turned to other projects. Henry Butler was the ghost in Bernstein’s attic, booming out the choppy two-handed thunderstorms that trailed the trumpeter like a spiritual force, softening in that deep voice, beckoning in a stage whisper, Steven, can you hear my impatient foot tapping? Steven, we are not done yet!

Collaborating with a dead man is no easy task but Bernstein pulls it off with brio in two new vinyl releases with the Millennial Territory Orchestra on the Royal Potato Family label. Good Time Music, featuring vocalist Catherine Russell, and Manifesto of Henryism, which showcases John Medeski (organ and piano) and the pianist Arturo O’Farrill on alternate tracks, in homage to Butler.

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Bernstein’s “Henryisms” is another take on Henry’s way of venturing far from the base rhythm, his own trip out into the continuum, capturing shards of song-lines in variations that inevitably return and resolve to the melody in Crescent City style. Bernstein’s horn charts offer a ranging chorus. The first cut of Manifesto is Jelly’s classic, “Black Bottom Stomp” with a swift melodic line suggesting horses racing around the track. In lieu of Henry, Medeski’s driving keyboard opens the territory for Bernstein leading the horns (Peter Apfelbaum and Erik Lawrence on saxophones, Curtis Folkes) on the chase.

Bernstein’s selections on Manifesto of Henryisms sing back to that impatient ghost in the attic. Song after song touches on Butler’s version of the continuum. The second cut, “Booker Time,” is a tribute to James Booker, the reed-thin “piano prince,” who wore a black patch and put his own deep blues stamp on New Orleans Style, celebrated in Lily Keber’s 2013 bio-doc Bayou Maharaja. Booker, like Professor Longhair, played with a powerful left hand, moving fluidly from rags to boogie into R&B. “Booker Time” was originally a solo piano piece by Butler; on this version, Bernstein stretches out the melodic mosaic for the band, Medeski at times riffing like a rhythm instrument.

Bernstein does his own deep bow to origins of the continuum, and Louis Armstrong, with his composition “Little Dipper” which segues nicely into “Dippermouth Blues,” the King Oliver song with cornet breaks that gave Armstrong an early showcase moment in Chicago. Bernstein’s half of the medley opens with Medeski’s keyboard prancing along till the horns appear, subtly at first, gaining a robust stride, a sweetly harmonizing tribute to the bolder sound young Louis issued in that timeless early recording.

Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra’s tribute to the New Orleans continuum extend nicely on the Royal Potato Family’s second volume in the Community Music releases, Good Time Music featuring Catherine Russell.

Russell has one gorgeous set of pipes, a singer at ease in the range of songs in the repertoire that Bernstein carries from the collaboration with Butler. She comes with grand pedigree. Her father, Luis Russell, was a Panamanian-born pianist who found his stride in New Orleans during the early stirrings of jazz, migrated to New York in 1925 and by the 1930s led the orchestra that backed Armstrong as his career soared.

In the Allen Toussaint song “Yes We Can,” Catherine Russell takes the original refrain, an up-tempo chorus yes we can! yes we can-can, yes we can! and stretches out the lyrics of hope as if kissing clouds. For “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand”—a Professor Longhair composition, to which the vinyl cover adds “In the Style of Henry Butler”—you get the picture of a new generation’s spin as Russell turns lovebird crooning and belting to that dude with his throbbing heart, while up in the attic of eternal music the viewfinder begins a slow zoom into Henry Butler, nodding to the tempos, smiling like a winner at the track.

Jason Berry is the author, most recently, of “City of a Million Dreams”, a New Orleans history and the subject of a new documentary.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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