American Road Shortcuts: Henry Butler
Nick Spitzer: Piano teacher Henry Butler was born in New Orleans in the late 1940s. At Louisiana State School for the Blind, he began a formal music education in the 1950s which included the glee club, the drums, horn and finally voice. He later worked with legendary jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge and earned a master’s degree in music. Over the years he has played Motown, East Coast and West Coast jazz, as well as European classical music. After many years on the road, he returns to New Orleans where he regularly shows his eclectic ways with the traditions of his hometown: jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and classical. We spent a morning at the piano with Henry Butler to hear his personal and musical visions.
NS: Were you born a classical musician or 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 remember some of my childhood episodes. When I was about five, I would go to a neighbor’s house and sort of play the piano. The thing I remembered from this experience is when you see children reacting to the piano, sometimes they bang on it a bit. I have never done that. I always went to the piano and just played single notes and if I could find a note that worked with that I could make a little melody. I didn’t have all that lingo at the time, but my ears were pretty good.
NS: Looking back, you can kind of see what was going on.
NS: How about looking to the future around that time, did you have eyesight when you went to the piano back then?
HB: No. No. Come to think of it, I think I had a certain vision; I certainly had a little imagination.
NS: A preview. How did you see the piano, not as an object, but how did you see the piano? Let’s put it that way.
HB: Well, at that point I realized that it was a huge, bulky instrument. Now, I certainly see the piano as an instrument that awaits your commands.
NS: Could you explain to us your musical understanding of something like sunrise? You have an album called Blues after sunset. Take us to this world of color and light perhaps by showing us where blues and classical meet.
HB: (laughs) Okay. You know before I did this pianistically, of course all music is full of color and the color spectrum is just energy based, right? It’s like a different energy level is producing blue compared to yellow, green, and so no matter what I play on the piano, it will put certain things in your mind or in the mind of the listener that can represent different colors. For example, if I do this (play the piano), only this series of notes or this scale represents a certain color for some people compared to (play the piano). It represents a different color. So now I’m going to play something totally different that represents a different color. (Play the piano)
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