Sept. 1 2010 12:00 AM

American original New Orleans’ Henry Butler hurls piano thunder with MSU Professors of Jazz



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 tonight.

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 said.

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 MSU.

“The community generally was wonderful to me. Aside from maybe one or two professors, my life was really good there.”

After his MSU stint, Butler returned to his native New Orleans but eventually moved on 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. On stage with the Professors, Butler doesn’t see himself as an 800-pound gorilla. “We’ll be fine,” Butler said. “All these guys are strong. Rodney (Whitaker, bassist and director of jazz studies) 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.”

Henry Butler

the MSU Professors of Jazz 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 1, Wharton
Center’s Pasant Theater $6-$8 Tickets at the door an hour before the
event, or at 102 Music Building until 5 p.m.