Henry Butler conjures up piano thunder at MSU Wednesday
The cyclonic keyboard force of New Orleans piano legend
Henry Butler could crack the Pasant Theater stage all by itself.
But the structural concrete underneath may also buckle when
Butler jams with Michigan State University’s Professors of Jazz Wednesday.
If the piano is the queen of instruments, Butler, 61,
carries the crown proudly. His specialty is a grand, inclusive synthesis of
jazz, boogie, gospel, R&B, pop and even the art song tradition of Franz
Schubert and Hugo Wolf, which he studied in the early 1970s at MSU.
Like the poet Walt Whitman, Butler is an American original
who celebrates it all, high and low, native and foreign, building a mighty
mansion with technical virtuosity and generosity of soul.
“This country, more than most, has that discovery attitude
and aptitude — the desire for new discoveries,” Butler said.
“Everything is here via a creative force. We might as well
utilize it if we have the information.”
Whether he plays straight-up boogie, deep blues, Latin
grooves or a jazz standard, Butler brings the hammers down like John Henry,
blasting deep into the bedrock for new veins of expression.
“I’ve played with alternative-rock groups, gospel groups,
blues, R&B groups, and there are creative energies in all those styles,” he
In Butler’s hands, Otis Redding’s classic “(Sittin’ On) The
Dock of the Bay” becomes a sanctified gospel steambath. Tumbling chords build a
minor chestnut like “High Heel Sneakers” into a mountain range of blues.
Butler might whip the audience into hand-clapping frenzy or
stop a tune short with a delicate minuet in high register, a la Mozart.
“Everything you do, everything you study, everything you
find yourself a part of, influences everything else you do,” Butler said. “I
have always wanted to be an all-around musician.”
Butler’s chiseled, monumental profile, often crowned with a
snappy fedora, perfectly complements his pile-driver force on keyboard.
Blind from glaucoma since birth, Butler studied several
instruments at the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge.
Butler said people are often surprised to learn he went to
MSU. He studied classical music at MSU from 1971 to 1974, ending up with a
master’s degree in voice.
“Coming from a black school in Baton Rouge, there were a lot
of things I needed to learn quickly,” he said.
Butler was recruited to MSU by a name that might be familiar
to jazz fans who own a lot of jazz books: Eddie Meadows, later a professor of
ethnomusicology and jazz studies at UCLA Berkeley, then a doctoral student at
“I had a lot of fun in Lansing,” Butler said. “The community
generally was wonderful to me. Aside from maybe one or two professors, my life
was really good there.”
Butler is reluctant to be specific about the less pleasant
“There were teachers who were trying to figure out how to
deal with students that were different than the ones they were used to dealing
with,” he said. “Some were better at it than others.”
“I know they were doing the best they could do under the
circumstances, and we just have to let it go at that.”
Butler chalks it up to a turbulent time in the nation’s
social life. “We were all trying to figure out a way to deal with each other
and be tolerant of each other,” he said. “Fortunately, we all got through those
chapters in our lives.”
After his MSU stint, Butler returned to his native New
Orleans but moved to Colorado, then to New York, after Hurricane Katrina.
He has considered moving back to New Orleans, but said the
“time isn’t right” yet.
“I’m having fun in New York,” he said.
If people are surprised to learn that Butler studied at MSU,
they are even more surprised to learn what he studied: classical voice,
especially the golden age of 19th- and 20th-century art song, when
composers like Franz Schubert, Hugo Wolff and Robert Schumann were writing
songbooks of unparalleled poetic insight and lyrical beauty.
To this day, Butler’s wildest boogie improvisations are
likely to fold into a tender, expressive melody worthy of “Winterreise.”
It’s not a matter of sneaking in a quote here and there.
“Many times it’s a matter of intimating and conceptualizing, alluding to a
concept that Schubert, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven used or might use,” he said.
This time around, Butler’s business at MSU is jazz. He’s
looking forward to sharing the stage with bassist Rodney Whitaker, alto saxman
Wessell Anderson, and drummer Randy Gelispie, all of whom he’s known or played
with for years.
“I used to catch (Whitaker) at the New York clubs,” Butler
said. “He’s a well-tempered sort of a guy,” he said, meaning “well-tempered” in
both the Bach-ian and the literal sense.
Butler has known Anderson since they both went to Southern
University in Baton Rouge and studied under elder clarinet statesman Alvin
Batiste. When Butler was a student at MSU, he and Gelispie played together at a
long-defunct Lansing club, Cave of the Candles, on Grand River, with luminaries
such as Chicago free-jazz legend Roscoe Mitchell and Indiana vocalist Blair
Over the years, Butler has tracked Whitaker and the expansion
of the MSU Jazz Studies area.
In Butler’s view, Whitaker has created the best jazz studies
program in the Big Ten.
“The University of Michigan has been playing around with it
for a long time,” Butler said. “You could say that they have a jazz program
down there, but I don’t take that very seriously.”
On stage with the Professors Wednesday, Butler doesn’t see
himself as an 800-pound gorilla. “We’ll be fine,” Butler said. “All these guys
are strong. Rodney has played with strong personalities before. He’s been
support and he’s been a leader.”
“The better musicians listen, observe, perceive. We’ll use
our intuition, hearing, our abilities to turn on a dime if we have to. It’s a
beautiful thing. We will make a truly joyful noise, as a group and as individuals.”