We were sad to learn earlier this week about the passing of pianist, composer, singer and educator Henry Butler, who lost his struggle with cancer on Monday at the age of 68. I’d seen this blind virtuoso many times over the years but it’s worth remembering two meetings that had the most impact on me personally. The first was a joint concert with Henry and Allen Toussaint celebrating the New Orleans piano tradition here at the Library on Nov. 1, 2007. We did separate, back-to-back oral history interviews with each that day. Here is the interview with Henry in which he discusses Jelly Roll Morton, who recorded his seminal oral history on the birth of jazz in New Orleans on the same stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium nearly 70 years earlier. The conversation included insights about Professor Longhair [Roy Byrd], James Booker and Harry Connick Jr., his mentor Alvin Batiste, the difference between knowledge and information, oral tradition vs book learning, working with sightless students and his experience of relocation after Hurricane Katrina. He illustrated his stories while seated at the piano. That interview can be found here.
The second encounter took place the following year when I had the opportunity to write a piece on Henry for JazzTimes magazine in November of 2008. It was a Before & After column for which I played Henry a series of recordings without giving him any information about the tracks beforehand, a sort-of “blindfold test,” offering his astute and knowledgeable insights about music. That published piece can be found here.
Rest in Peace Henry Butler, and thank you.