Henry Butler,
An Appreciation

The first time I ever saw a performance by Henry Butler, the virtuoso New Orleans pianist and vocalist who passed away July 2 at 69, was shortly after he returned to his hometown of New Orleans after living in Los Angeles where he recorded two critically acclaimed modern jazz albums. Since that solo set on the quad at Tulane University in the late 1980s, I heard him play nearly 100 times as a headliner or as a special guest of a huge variety of musicians.

I didn’t know a thing about him early on, but it was clear from that first afternoon that New Orleans music lovers were dealing with not just a new face in town, but a new phase of a piano paradigm that extended back through James Booker and Professor Longhair all the way to Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

His prowess on the keys was akin to that of Snooks Eaglin on the guitar and caused a similar reaction from the crowd. Whether he was playing the blues, R&B, funk, or rock ‘n’ roll, his playing was simply awe-inspiring and confounding. Other musicians got up close to try to discern exactly how he was creating the storm of music emanating from his chosen instrument. The rest of us danced with our mouths hanging open. And when Butler opened his mouth to sing, the reaction was similar. He had a special voice and was able to sound like a blues shouter, an opera singer, or the bass vocalist in a gospel choir.

Butler was enigmatic with his music and his personal life. He was a photographer despite the fact that he was totally blind. He could play jazz with the best of them, and when that was what he chose to play, dazzling jazz was what you got. During a set at the Louisiana Music Factory between weekends of Jazz Fest in 1994, someone in the crowd yelled out, “sing something.” Butler replied with no malice, “If anyone’s going to sing, it’s going to be you.”

Sometimes his senses were so tuned in to the world around him; people would suspect that he wasn’t totally blind. On a car ride uptown from Vaughan’s after Butler blew everyone’s mind sitting in with Kermit Ruffins, he gave directions to his house on Delachaise Street as if he was looking at a map. The trumpeter James Andrews was in the car as well and we both shook our heads in amazement as Butler told the driver he had missed his street and need to make a U-turn! This was at four in the morning on St. Charles Avenue and many turns from the Bywater watering hole.

He had a gravitational force felt by everyone in the room especially other musicians. In 1996, a very young Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his older brother James were playing an afternoon brass band set at the Old U.S. Mint with Tanio Hingle on bass drum and Kerry Hunter on snare. Butler, seemingly unbidden but clearly welcome, started playing the piano on the side on the stage without a microphone. Before too long, the whole band moved off the stage to be next to the piano and at his side.

When Richard Rochester opened the now defunct Funky Butt club on Rampart Street, it was as a mission akin to what occurred two decades earlier when a group of music enthusiasts opened Tipitina’s so Professor Longhair would have a place to play. Rochester installed a Steinway grand piano on the second floor and Butler held court, sometimes playing solo until the wee-wee hours and other times fronting a killer band.

Butler sat in with everyone and anyone. He was a regular with Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers as a special guest and featured player. He was in Ruffins’ short-lived progressive jazz band and his sorely missed big band. He played on bills with Eaglin and Eddie Bo. He jammed with George Porter, Jr. and Russell Batiste in a musically surreal version of the Meters and sang his ass off. After Hurricane Katrina he joined Porter, Jr., Ivan Neville, Leo Nocentelli and numerous other musicians as the New Orleans Social Club to record the album, Sing Me Back Home.

When the next generation of funk bands started emerging with Galactic leading the way, he played with all of them. He opened for Galactic with his band Orleans Inspiration at the grand opening of Tipitina’s French Quarter on New Year’s Eve 1998. When Superfly Productions was organizing their early SuperJams before the Bonnaroo fest even existed, they paired Butler with Karl Denson, Stanton Moore, Chris Wood, and Nocentelli for a blistering show at Tipitina’s in March of 2000.

Butler could also been found at virtually every benefit concert for causes and people in need. At one such show at Tipitina’s to support the NY firefighters after 9/11, Butler played three songs solo. He opened with an inspiring version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” that had people in the crowd crying.

Henry Butler recorded seven albums after his return to New Orleans, digging ever deeper into the piano traditions of his hometown. But the flooding in the aftermath of Katrina destroyed his home in the Gentilly neighborhood and set him on the road for the remainder of his life. His fame grew as a monster pianist and singer. But his local sets were much less frequent. His last New Orleans gig was at this year’s Jazz Fest where he seemed physically diminished, but spiritually strong. Few knew how sick he was.

However, for a good twenty years, Butler could turn up anywhere—mystifying music lovers with two hands that sounded like four, and a singular voice that could raise the roof and reach for the heavens.

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