Jump to content

Please note: You can easily log in to MPN using your Facebook account!

Henry Butler has passed away

Josh Paxton

Recommended Posts

I got the news earlier tonight that we've lost another giant. Henry Butler has passed away. He was a friend, a mentor, and the guy who got my unhesitant vote for the greatest living New Orleans pianist. I'll probably have more to say later, but now I'm just gonna go fall apart for a while.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 22
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Oh no. That's sad.


"The New Orleans born blind piano virtuoso was 68-years-old. Butler, who has lived in New York since Hurricane Katrina, battled cancer for several years."



These are only my opinions, not supported by any actual knowledge, experience, or expertise.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Josh I'm sorry. All the amazing anecdotes that you've been posting on Facebook--- feel free to post them over here one by one when you're ready. I think our whole universe over here might be inspired by them, I know I am.

Kawai C-60 Grand Piano : Hammond A-100 : Hammond SK2 : Yamaha CP4 : Yamaha Montage 7 : Moog Sub 37


My latest album: Funky organ, huge horn section


Link to comment
Share on other sites

So Sorry to hear this, he was a great one for sure...what a natural cat he was. Condolences Josh!

RIP Henry . . .and thank you for the great music! You inspired me!

SP6, CP-50,YC 73,  FP-80, PX5-S, NE-5d61, XK-3, CX-3, Yamaha YUX Upright, '66 B3/Leslie 145/122

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I got the word last night but for a while couldn't confirm it on the regular news sources. I spent about an hour hoping it was just another Facebook hoax but alas.....


My own personal discovery of Henry Butler was on my first trip to New Orleans for Heritage & Jazzfest. It was 2004 IIRC.

We were in a steamy Blues Tent that I first experienced the magic of Mr Butler.

He and his band made that space exponentially hotter that day.


A few years later I had the amazing pleasure of sitting about 8 feet behind and to the side of him at a solo concert held at Patriots Theater in Trenton NJ. It was one of those intimate "on stage" shows where the audience is seated on the stage surrounding the performer. The sounds coming from that piano and the view of his hands remain one of my favorite musical experiences as a member of an audience.


Henry Butler combined with Jon Cleary opened up an entire world and history of piano music for my poor, unenlightened self.


It's a sad day and I will fill it with the music of New Orleans.


R.I.P. Henry Butler

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I really appreciate your posts about him, Josh. Unfortunately, while I had heard of him, I hadn't yet dug into his material. I wish I had while he was alive.

"I'm so crazy, I don't know this is impossible! Hoo hoo!" - Daffy Duck


"The good news is that once you start piano you never have to worry about getting laid again. More time to practice!" - MOI

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My recent FB ramblings on the subject...


Henry. Dammit. Man oh man oh man. Where to even begin?


At the beginning, I suppose...


The summer I moved to New Orleans, before I started grad school, I hooked up a lesson with some guy named Tom McDermott who apparently knew a thing or two about how James Booker played what he did. So I went to Tom's house, and he showed me some stuff, and he was cool, and we had a lot of the same tastes, and we became fast friends. And then at the end of the lesson he said, "So are you hip to Henry Butler?"


I said, "Who?"


He said, "OOOHHH. Okay, get ready," or words to that effect. Then he put in a cassette (yeah, it was that long ago), pressed Play... and my mind proceeded to get blown apart in a way that has happened very, VERY few times before or since. It was absolutely up there with the first time I heard Booker or Ray Charles. What I was hearing was a guy alone, playing solo piano, with a level of technique that would make Oscar Peterson do a double take; harmonic sophistication that would make Ellington nod in approval; groove that would make George Clinton do the stank face; soul that would make Ray whoop and holler; and overall joy that would make Allen Toussaint beam. It's not an exaggeration to say that at that moment I became a slightly different person, because I realized that the instrument I had chosen was capable of things I had previously been unaware of, and if I wanted to be serious about it, I was gonna have to deal with those things. I've been dealing with those things ever since.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Henry story #2:


I wish I could remember how I got myself invited to a recording session with Henry Friggin' Butler, but I can't.


I was in my early 20s, just starting grad school, and it had only been a few months since I had discovered Henry and it had rocked my world. But I had dug in hard, studied his recordings, started trying to figure out how he did what he did. And now I was gonna get to meet him and watch him record! Hell yeah!


So I got to the studio, and he was there, and we were introduced, and someone told him I was an aspiring pianist, and he asked me to play something for him. So I did, and he was kind, but totally honest and direct about what he thought I needed to work on. That was a little jarring, but even at that age I knew enough to be grateful for that kind of feedback.


And then for the next couple hours I got to sit, watch, and listen to him play. It was friggin' incredible. Like, if you had asked me if I'd rather stay there at that moment, or go back in time and hang out while Hendrix recorded "Purple Haze" or Stevie recorded "Superstition," I'd have said "Are you crazy? Get out of here!" And during breaks and in between takes, I bombarded him with questions that I was too green to realize were invasive and annoying; what did you do on this song, and how do you play this, and blah blah blah. And after evading my inappropriate and now-embarrassing questions for a good while, he finally told me one of the most profound things anyone has ever said to me about music. He said, "Look, I've heard you play, and you've obviously got your own thing going. So don't worry about doing what I do. Instead, work on developing what you do."


At that moment I was bummed, because right then there was nothing I wanted more than to figure out what he did. But in retrospect it was absolutely the most valuable and spot-on accurate thing anyone could possibly have told me. Of course, how long it took me to accept and apply that is another matter, but that's not the point. The point is, at that moment Henry gave me the best gift he possibly could have. And eventually it served me well, even if it took a while...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Henry story #3: that time I inadvertently almost killed Henry Butler...


I was still in grad school, driving home from class one day, listening to WWOZ (like you do). They were doing their pledge drive, and Henry was on the air shaking the can for them. And he said, "The next three people who call and support the station, in addition to the sticker and the CD and the other things you get, you'll also get a piano lesson from me."


I immediately wrenched my car across three lanes of traffic, brought it to a screeching halt in the Schwegmann's parking lot, and ran to the pay phone with a quarter in my hand (like you did back then). I pledged my money and confirmed that I was among the lucky three. I was psyched.


So a couple weeks later, after some phone calls, Henry came by my place. It was an attic apartment a third-floor walk-up, and the last narrow, twisty flight of stairs was challenging even for sighted people. So I described the situation to Henry and said, "How do we do this?" He said he'd just put his hand on my shoulder and follow me up, and everything would be fine. And it was.


And so I finally had a piano lesson with Henry Butler, during which I was sure he'd show me all kinds of cool stuff that he played. And naturally, yet again I was wrong. What happened instead was, he listened to me play, expertly isolated a bunch of my weaknesses, drilled me on them until I wanted to hide under a rock, and then offered me ways that I could work on improving them. "Play this blues pattern in C," he said. "Okay," I said, and did it effortlessly. "Good," he said, "now let's hear it in C#." Ummmmm... [stumble, clam, miss, train wreck]. "Aaaahhhh," he said, "there's something we can work on." Dammit! "It's one thing for the old blues guys not to be able to do this, because they were self-taught," he said. "But you've got one degree and you're working on another. You don't have that excuse. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to be able to do this, and it has to be second nature." Dammit, Henry, will you just show me what I want you to show me instead of teaching me things I clearly need to learn??


But of course he didn't, because he was good and knew better than I did what I needed to work on. Eventually I came to appreciate it, even if I didn't at the time.


So then the lesson was over, and it was time for me to lead him back down the stairs. Fun fact: leading a blind person down a winding, narrow, uneven staircase is a lot trickier than leading them up one. It went okay for the first few steps, but then he missed one and pitched forward. And it was only by dumb luck that I happened to have a sure foothold and a solid grip on the railing at that moment, and was able to absorb his weight. A split second earlier or later he'd have knocked me down too, and we'd both have gone tumbling down the stairs and quite possibly died.


I'm really glad we didn't. I mean, besides the part about my own life not being cut short, I'm really glad the world got over 20 years more with him, much as I dearly wish it would have been longer.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Henry story #4: Happy Birthday!


This was maybe eight or ten years ago. There was a piano players birthday party for Henry, where wed all just hang out and play for each other. It was organized by George Winston yes, the new age piano player whose records your mom had. Not a lot of people know hes a serious New Orleans piano devotee, but he is. Anyway, all the local heavies were there Dr. John, Cleary, McDermott, Joe Krown, I think Marcia Ball was there it was a serious gathering. When my turn to play came around, I played just two tunes that I had chosen very carefully in advance. First I played my arrangement of Ray Charles Hallelujah I Love Her So, which is the tune that deliberately features all my Henry stuff. All the licks and grooves and approaches I had learned from him over the years, I had crammed into that one tune. Then I played my version of St. Louis Blues, because its got things that only I play, that Ive never heard anyone else do. I picked those two in order to convey a specific message: Henry, heres all the stuff Ive gotten from you; thank you. And heres what Ive developed by following the advice you gave me way back when, to find my own voice. Thank you for that too.


It worked. Henry seemed moved and was nicely complimentary after I played, as were others. But the most meaningful and unexpected compliment I got was from Tom McDermott. He told me, Even when you play your Henry stuff, it doesnt sound like you're trying to be him anymore; it sounds like you.


Yeah, that was a pretty good day.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've been reminded over the past couple days that I am a member of a fairly small but very special club: the International Brotherhood Of Pianists Who Have Had To Play After Henry Butler.


I was fortunate to appear on the same bill as Henry a good number of times over the years, at various festivals and whatnot. And most of those times the organizers had the good sense to put Henry last. But once in a while, due to whatever circumstances, he wasn't last, which meant that some poor sucker had to follow him. And a few times that poor sucker was me.


As other members of the Brotherhood know, the dread of having to follow Henry happens in three stages. First is the denial stage, which occurs when you first learn that that's what's going to happen. "I have to WHAT?!? Oh geez, please tell me you're kidding?" The second is the more existential dread that happens when you're listening to him, hearing exactly what you're going to have to follow and realizing how terrifying it is. And finally, there's the stomach-churning, visceral dread that settles over you when you actually take the stage, and now you have to do something worthwhile after THAT just happened.


Because it wasn't just that Henry was an amazingly, stupefyingly brilliant pianist, which was a given; it was that after he did what he did, there was effectively nothing even left to SAY on the piano. Anything you might have wanted to say, he just said way better than you would have... AND he also said about a hundred other things way better than that, none of which would you ever have thought of. It was like giving an insurance seminar talk after MLK just delivered "I Have A Dream." It was like trying to move into a new apartment and throw a party after the previous tenants had just burned the place to the ground. It was as ridiculous an exercise in futility as any I've ever undertaken.


But one thing's for sure: it brought out your A game.


And so, you did what you did. You bundled up your courage, sat down, and made your statement. If you were smart, you had the good sense to plan your set to be as unlike his as possible. (And if you weren't that smart the first time you found yourself in that spot, you damn sure were by the second time.) The one tiny, blessed upside is that no one in the place audience, other performers, organizers expected you to top what had just happened. Hell, most of them weren't even paying attention to you because they were still recovering. And then, chances are you learned something: you learned that it didn't break you. The sun came up the next morning, and you were still alive, and Henry hadn't taken all your regular gigs (not like he needed them), and even if your set wasn't the one people were talking about, you had been part of something pretty spectacular.


And then you realized that for the rest of your life, you'd be able to casually say, "Oh yeah, this one time when Henry Butler was opening for me..."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

So earlier tonight I played my first gig of my own since getting the news that a friend and mentor of mine had passed on. I won't lie, it was tough. One thing that made it easier: a number of people, after reading my posts over the last couple days, came out specifically to hear me play my Henry stuff and pay tribute to him. I found myself remembering a lot of things I learned from him but had forgotten, from specific licks to general concepts that I'm not sure I could even describe verbally. And in the process, music did what music does; it brings us together, it lets us say things we can't say in words (even those of us who, as demonstrated in my recent posts, have plenty of words to say), and it helps us heal and move on. So I think I'm done now. Thanks to all who have hung with me.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wonderful, insightful stories Josh. It's reassuring to hear first hand evidence that

Henry was as good a person and teacher as he was a musician.


I'm so very sorry for your personal loss and I still grieve the loss felt by everyone touched by this man's talent and music.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Whoa.... Henry wasn't that old.


I heard him at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland probably 10 or so years ago and he displayed amazing abilities.


It made he wonder how much he may have been influenced by James Booker given that they were both from New Orleans. But Henry was really on fire on the day I heard him.He displayed Art Tatum level technique that left me wondering why I hadn't heard more about him.


The material he did was a little quirky that day ( as Booker could also be) but it didn't matter because his skills and ability went way beyond his choice of tunes.


I had heard of him and maybe and seen copies of some of his recordings but I had no idea that he played at the level I heard that day. Whatever recording I had heard randomly did not do him justice.


It's a good bet that the Waterfront Blues fest happing this weekend will not offer anything like the day I heard Henry play there.


I am sorry to hear that this happened.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Create New...