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American Routes Shortcuts: Henry Butler

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Henry Butler

Get out your Crayolas and sketchpads, as we fill in the spectrum of musical colors.  Red-hot jazz, cool blues, what we see when we hear music. All those feelings will come to light as we dig back into the archives for our epic interview with the late New Orleans piano professor Henry Butler about his eclectic musical vision.

Nick Spitzer: Piano professor Henry Butler was born in New Orleans in the late 1940s. At the Louisiana State School for the Blind, he began a formal musical education in the 1950s that included glee club, drums, horn, and finally voice. Later, he worked under the legendary jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge and received a Masters in Music. Over the years he's played Motown, East Coast and West Coast jazz, and European classical music. After many years on the road, he came back to New Orleans where he regularly shows his eclectic ways with hometown traditions: jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and classical. We spent a morning at the piano with Henry Butler hearing his personal and musical visions.

NS: Were you born a classical musician or born a musician? How were you born?

Henry Butler: Well, I was just born.

NS: Do you remember being born?

HB: Well, not quite, but I do remember some of my infant episodes. When I was about five, I used to go over to a neighbor’s house and kind of play on the piano. The thing that I remembered about that experience was when you see kids react to pianos, sometimes they kind of bang on it a little bit. I never did that. I always went to a piano and just played single notes and if I could find a note that worked with that then I could create a little melody. I didn’t have all this jargon at the time, but my ears were very good.

NS: Looking back, you can kind of see what it was that was going on.

HB: Right.

NS: How about looking forward at that time, did you have sight when you went to the piano back in those days?

HB: No. No. Looking back at it I think I had some vision; I certainly had some imagination.

NS: Some insight. How did you see the piano, not as an object, but how did you view the piano? Let’s put it that way.

HB: Well at that time, I just realized it to be an overwhelming big, bulky instrument. Now I see the piano certainly as an instrument that just waits for your commands.

NS: Could you take us into your musical understanding of say something like sunrise? You have an album called Blues After Sunset. Take us into that world of color and light maybe by showing us where the blues and classical come together.

HB: (laughs) Okay. You know before I do that pianistically, of course all music is full of color and the color spectrum is just based on energy, right? It’s like a different level of energy produces blue versus yellow, green, and so regardless of what I play on the piano, it’ll set up some things in your mind or in the mind of the listener that may represent different colors. For instance if I do this (plays piano), just that series of notes or that scale represents a certain color to some people versus (plays piano). That represents a different color. So now I’m going to play something totally different which represents a different color. (Plays piano)

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.