Henry Butler, right, performing during the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was acclaimed as a member of a New Orleans piano pantheon that includes Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Henry Butler, a pianist who carried the flamboyant, two-fisted traditions of New Orleans to the brink of the avant-garde
, died on Monday in a hospice facility in the Bronx. He was 69.
His death was confirmed by his manager, Art Edelstein. Mr. Butler, who had lived in Brooklyn since 2009, had been treated for metastic colon cancer.
Mr. Butler’s music was encyclopedic, precise and wild. He was acclaimed as a member of a distinctively New Orleans piano pantheon alongside Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker
, Tuts Washington
, Professor Longhair
, Fats Domino
, Allen Toussaint
and Dr. John
. He was also a forthright, bluesy singer who often used New Orleans standards as springboards for improvisation.
Mr. Butler commanded the syncopated power and splashy filigree of boogie-woogie and gospel and the rolling polyrhythms of Afro-Caribbean music. He could also summon the elegant delicacy of classical piano or hurtle toward the dissonances and atonal clusters of modern jazz. He could play in convincing vintage styles and sustain multileveled counterpoint, then demolish it all in a whirlwind of genre-smashing virtuosity.
Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) once described him as “the pride of New Orleans and a visionistical down-home cat and a hellified piano plunker to boot.”
Ivan Neville, who leads the New Orleans band Dumpstaphunk
and recorded with Mr. Butler as part of the all-star group New Orleans Social Club, said by email on Tuesday that Mr. Butler was “an amazingly, truly gifted musician and pianist like no other.” He added, “At times it sounded like he had three or four hands instead of just two.”
was born in New Orleans on Sept. 21, 1948, and grew up in the Calliope housing projects there, which were torn down after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Glaucoma left him blind in infancy, and he attended the Louisiana State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge (now the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired), where he studied piano along with drums and trombone. He also learned to read classical music in Braille notation while picking up popular songs by ear.
Mr. Butler went on to Southern University
in Baton Rouge, where he majored in voice and minored in piano, mentored by the clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste
. He also studied with the jazz pianists George Duke and Roland Hanna, and earned
a master’s degree in music at Michigan State University in 1974.
In New Orleans, Mr. Butler had a few marathon piano lessons with Professor Longhair
(Henry Roeland Byrd), and he also got to work with Mr. Booker
Although he was surrounded by New Orleans jazz and R&B while growing up, as a young musician Mr. Butler at first disdained those traditions as “tourist music.”
“In those days, we used to see a lot of people getting drunk,” he said in an interview with NPR
. “So we sort of associated this music with that kind of stuff. As I grew older, I realized it really wasn’t the music that was the problem.”
He was 14 when he began playing professionally at dances and clubs. He performed at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival in 1970 with fellow Southern University students, and appeared at nearly every JazzFest afterward, including this year’s.
After receiving his master’s degree, Mr. Butler returned to New Orleans and taught in the vocal program at the Performing Arts High School of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
In 1980, he moved to Los Angeles, where he began his recording career as a mainstream jazz musician. He had distinguished sidemen on his debut album, “Fivin’ Around
,” in 1986 (including the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard
) and his 1987 album, “The Village” (including Mr. Batiste, the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Jack DeJohnette).
But beginning with his album “Orleans Inspiration” in 1990, Mr. Butler broadened his jazz to embrace New Orleans funk, R&B and blues
, stretching the familiar material to incorporate everything from Schubertian harmonies to free jazz. His recognition spread; he toured nationally and internationally.
Mr. Butler performing at Jazz Standard in Manhattan in 2014 with trumpeter Steve . “No one had a left hand like him,” Mr Bernstein said. “No one on the planet. It was so strong and fast.”Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times
He also found another artistic outlet: photography.
“I wanted to see why the sighted world was so interested in looking at images on a piece of paper or a piece of canvas,” he said in a recent interview with the website Australian Musician
In New Orleans, he photographed Mardi Gras celebrants, street scenes and the wreckage of his Mason & Hamlin piano
after Katrina; his photographs were in the traveling exhibition “Sight Unseen: International Photography by Blind Artists.”
From 1990 to 1996, Mr. Butler taught at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, and in 1993 he started a series of jazz camps in various cities to teach blind and vision-impaired young musicians; a 2010 documentary, “The Music’s Gonna Get You Through
,” was made about them.
After returning in 1996 to New Orleans he performed steadily around the city, as well as on the road and as a guest studio musician for James Taylor, Cyndi Lauper, Irma Thomas
, Afghan Whigs and others. He released an album as a band leader every two years until Katrina struck.
Flooding destroyed his home, including not only his piano but also his recording equipment, some album master tapes and his extensive archive of live recordings and Braille music manuscripts. Copies of live recordings survived in the collection of the musician George Winston, who helped Mr. Butler select a compilation of them for Mr. Butler’s 2008 album, “PiaNOLA Live.”
Six weeks after the hurricane, leading New Orleans musicians gathered to record as the New Orleans Social Club, a lineup that included
Mr. Butler, Mr. Neville, the guitarist Leo Nocentelli, the bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters and many guests. Their album, “Sing Me Back Home,” was released in 2006. The group reconvened for occasional performances, including one that was documented for the public television series “Austin City Limits
After Katrina, Mr. Butler moved to Denver before settling in Brooklyn. In New York he assembled a New Orleans-flavored band, Jambalaya. He also collaborated with the trumpeter Steve Bernstein and his group the Hot 9, reviving traditional jazz tunes and New Orleans R&B with postmodern glee
. Mr. Butler’s final album, “Viper’s Drag
,” was made with Mr. Bernstein and the Hot 9.
“Henry was fiercely independent, and he did not want to be second fiddle to anybody,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I’d just listen to him play the tunes, and I’d record it, and I’d end up transcribing what he played for the band. So the band was three-dimensional Henry, playing something he had played once. And then he’d be improvising on top of his improvisation.”
Mr. Bernstein added: “No one had a left hand like him. No one on the planet. It was so strong and fast, and he had such control of every part of it: the tone, the dynamics, the speed. He did all these things that were so fast that no one else could do them. If you looked at his hands, they were blurs.”
Mr. Butler learned he had colon cancer in 2015 and underwent surgery. The disease returned in 2017, and he used the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.com
to finance alternative therapy.
But between medical treatments, he continued to perform worldwide. After appearing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, he performed in Beijing and in Melbourne, Australia, and he was planning European dates in July. His final concert was on June 18 at a Jazz for Justice benefit in New York City.
He is survived by his brother, George Butler Jr.
“I don’t believe in isolation,” Mr. Butler told the New Orleans magazine “Where Y’at” in 2017
. “If you can’t bring it all together, why do it? I’m not bragging, but I love the fact that I can do it all.”
A version of this article appears in print on July 5, 2018, on Page B12 of the New York edition with the headline: Henry Butler, New Orleans Pianist Who Cut Across Genres, Dies at 69. Order Reprints
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