Henry Butler, New Orleans R&B and jazz piano virtuoso, dies at 68
Updated Jul 2, 11:20 PM Posted Jul 2, 8:36 PM
Henry Butler, the imposing R&B and jazz pianist, died in New York City on Monday (July 2), according to his manager Art Edelstein and agent Maurice Montoya. He was 68 years old.
Mr. Butler died of end-stage cancer, Montoya confirmed. He had been diagnosed with the illness more than a year ago.
"He really fought hard," Edelstein said, continuing to perform up until what's believed to be his last show on June 18 in New York. "He's really been active, but his body just gave out."
Death of Henry Butler: Reactions on social media
Henry Butler, New Orleans piano virtuoso, died Monday (July 2). As word spread, musicians and fans reacted on social media.
Mr. Butler, who grew up in the Calliope housing development, was sightless since infancy. As a kid, he taught himself to play piano by ear, and by age 12 he was performing professionally.
At the Louisiana State School for the Blind, he learned to memorize classical scores written in Braille, before translating them to the keyboard. He continued his musical studies at Southern University, where he honed the use of his resonant singing voice.
Many have been impressed by Mr. Butler's lack of reliance on others.
"Henry's unbelievable–and unbelievably independent and always has been," Edelstein said. "He got all over the world on his own."
Mr. Butler was a powerful presence at Crescent City clubs and festivals for decades, and traveled extensively to deliver the New Orleans piano tradition to the world. In addition, Butler practiced photography, relying on friends to describe the scenes he then shot. His photos were symbols of his unwillingness to accept his visual limitations.
In 2005 Mr. Butler's Gentilly home was flooded, ruining his piano and music collection. In the aftermath Mr. Butler relocated temporarily to Colorado and then New York. He has been based in Brooklyn for at least the past five years, Edelstein said.
In early 2017, word reached New Orleans that Mr. Butler had been diagnosed with advanced cancer. He continued to perform.
"He had a bright outlook for the future," Montoya said, describing how he and Mr. Butler decided to keep booking gigs for Mr. Butler despite his illness. Mr. Butler had a European tour scheduled for this summer.
"He's going to stay with us," Montoya said. "If you went to his concerts, you can still hear him in your mind."
Both Edelstein and Montoya described Butler as the last in a line of distinctive New Orleans pianists like icons James Booker and Professor Longhair.
"They all incorporated so much of New Orleans history," Edelstein said, mixing sounds from 1950s New Orleans R&B, jazz, Latin music and other styles reflective of the city's colorful influences. "Henry really is the last of that tradition."
Butler did not turn over his earthly seat at the piano bench easily, Edelstein and Montoya said, but remained active in at least two bands, touring China and Australia in May, and continued performing solo gigs up until about two weeks ago.
He also played this spring's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
"I think he's still playing," Edelstein said. "He's just playing somewhere else."
Musician Henry Butler diagnosed with cancer
Despite the health concerns, the jazz and blues pianist is "in good spirits and he's intending to continue playing and working."
Staff writer Laura McKnight contributed to this story.
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