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Piano Man Henry Butler Remembers Not to Forget New Orleans

Ellen Mallernee
|
06.30.2008
Henry Butler
It’s a sticky hot Saturday in June, and the great New Orleans pianist Henry Butler ambles past swarms of people chatting backstage at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. He’s probably six feet tall but seems taller because of his stick-straight posture. Tapping the ground ahead with a walking cane, he grips onto the arm of his publicist, who whispers a word or two of direction and leads his boss under one of the festival’s aerodynamic shade tents. Blind since birth, the 58-year-old pianist who lost his home to Katrina three years ago is not short on hard luck tales, but he’s more inclined to share a deep laugh, head tilted back, mouth full of teeth.

Growing up, Butler made quite a racket around the Louisiana State School for the Blind, where he learned to play valve trombone, baritone horn, and drums before he was barely big enough to lift them. There, too, the young prodigy discovered his talent for singing and piano. Now one of New Orleans’ best-loved pianists—though he relocated to Denver after the hurricane?he can find his way down a keyboard like few others in this world.

Under the cover of Bonnaroo’s New Orleans Tent, Butler slides up to the piano dressed in a smart suit and a serious pair of shades. As he turns out tunes that are a cross between the boogie of his birthplace and the jazz of his education at Southern University (where he studied under Alvin Batiste) people who have only slipped into the tent for a break from the beating sun are suddenly mesmerized.

Afterwards, with a paper cup of hot tea on the table before him, Butler presses the palms of his hands on his knees, leans into an Adirondack chair, and talks of making do after Katrina, which along with the bottom floor of his house swept away his piano of 23 years and all the rest of his recording equipment. He speaks too of the challenges of being a blind pianist and of what drives him—40 years into his career—to keep playing every day.

You’ve always been one to challenge yourself. Early on, you learned to read music with Braille when it would have been much easier to just learn it by ear. What was the process like?

One of the reasons why I decided to major in voice when I went to college is because of what blind people have to deal with when they’re trying to learn a piano score. It was a lot easier for me to learn vocal scores than it was for me to do the piano thing. If you know anything about how the Braille book format is, that’s how piano scores are laid out, like a magazine. You open the page, and whatever hand you start reading with you start tracing a line and the hands are broken up into right hand and left hand. So you’re reading the right hand part and you go across the page reading the right hand and then you try to memorize that. Go over it two or three times, and then the next thing you do is put your hands back on the music and read the left hand part. You try to memorize that and then you try to put them together. As a blind pianist, you have to start from the very beginning memorizing the piece. I had good ears. I could have learned the music like that.

You got your Master’s in vocal music. Was singing your first love?

Not necessarily. I started on the piano. I mean, I love singing, but I started out in first grade picking out things on the piano. Then I started taking lessons when I was in third grade. The good thing about starting with piano is it allowed me to do a lot more things than if I had started taking lessons as a vocalist. I started working at my arrangements when I was in fifth grade, and a year after I started taking piano, I started my drum routine and learned how to play drums. I did that for three years and then I went to lower brass, and having a developing knowledge of the piano really did help me as I was learning to play baritone horn and valve trombone.

Henry ButlerWhich pianists have inspired you the most throughout your life?

Oh man, I’ll tell you what, I have loved so many pianists, so many styles. I like Alicia de Larrocha. I went through my period of really listening a lot to André Watts and André Previn. You may not know Walter Gieseking, but he was a wonderful classical player. He was one of the models that I used when I was listening to [Beethoven’s] “Sonata Pathétique” to learn that. Of course, [Vladimir] Horowitz. On the jazz side of things, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Mulgrew Miller. I really like Herbie Hancock’s work and Bruce Hornsby’s. There are a lot of gospel pianists that I like, and then there are those who don’t always play a lot of piano but they do play keyboards and synthesizers, and I like a lot of those people as well. I appreciate Allen Toussaint’s work. I like, and I spent some time with, Professor Longhair, who was a great New Orleans piano player.

Now that you’ve lived in Denver for a couple years, has New Orleans stopped inspiring your music so much?

Not at all, it always will. I’m always going to be an ambassador for New Orleans music regardless of what I’m doing. It’s a music that inspires people and informs people and uplifts people. It really does change and take away the pain from people even if for that moment that they’re hearing it.

CNN interviewed you recently for a story about New Orleans’ soaring crime rates. Is that what’s keeping you away from the city?

[The article] was sort of exaggerated, but I will say that when I lived in New Orleans in my early years, I grew up in the projects so I’m not that fearful of the crime situation. I am concerned about the white collar crime and the criminal behavior of politicians. When you start stealing the educations of kids who are totally helpless, when you start to take the money away from people who need homes, and when you start stealing vehicles that are given to charities for delivering goods, then to me that’s way more disruptive than anything that a dope user can do by stealing somebody’s purse. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I condone what dope dealers and dope users do when they go out and steal from people, but that’s often a one-time act. Usually people can get over that faster than getting a bad education that might affect them for the rest of their lives. I’m still sort of recovering from Katrina. I’m still sort of trying to figure out what’s next for me in the next three to five years. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen.

Henry ButlerDo you have a feel on where you’ll be artistically in the coming years?

My next record is going to be a real statement record. I think it’s going to be very different and we’ve already talked to a lot of great musical personalities—some who are known throughout the world and some who aren’t—but it’s going to be very different from the PiaNOLA Live CD [released this past April]. I’m looking forward to that. I’m always figuring out how to manipulate the piano. How to realize what’s in me. How to get what’s in me out to the people that are listening. It’s an ongoing practice, and I do my best to play it every day. Whenever I think I’ve mastered something, something else faces me, and I’ve got to learn how to do that. It’s a beautiful thing.

For information on replenishing the musical instruments lost during Hurricane Katrina, visit Music Rising here.
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