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Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, Bandleader and Conductor, Dies at 65

Originator of "Conduction" technique worked with David Murray, others

John Abbott, Bob Blumenthal and Butch Morris at Saxophone Colossus book signing in NYC
Lawrence "Butch" Morris
Butch Morris

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, a cornetist, composer, bandleader and conductor who created a technique for conducting group improvisations that he called Conduction, died today, Jan. 29, at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y., after a battle with lung cancer. He was 65.

Born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1947, Morris was known originally as a cornetist with a leaning toward free jazz. He moved to New York and worked as a player with saxophonists David Murray, Charles Tyler and Hamiet Bluiett in the 1970s and early ’80s, but by the mid-’80s he was devoting more time to bandleading (including Murray’s large ensembles). In 1985 Morris began implementing Conduction, a technique that involved the use of hand signals and other gestures to lead a group improvisation. Morris had Conduction trademarked and copyrighted.

Morris, in a statement that he supplied to programmers booking him, described Conduction this way:

“Conduction (conducted improvisation) is a means by which a conductor may compose, (re)orchestrate, (re)arrange and sculpt with notated and non-notated music. Using a vocabulary of signs and gestures, many within the general glossary of traditional conducting, the conductor may alter or initiate rhythm, melody, harmony, not to exclude the development of form/structure, both extended and common, and the instantaneous change in articulation, phrasing, and meter. Indefinite repeats of a phrase or measures may now be at the discretion of the new Composer on the Podium. Signs such as Memory may be utilized to recall a particular moment and Literal Movement is a gesture used as a real-time graphic notation. Conducting is no longer a mere method for an interpretation but a viable connection to the process of composition and the process itself. The act of Conduction is a vocabulary for the improvising ensemble. In the past fifty years the international community of improvisers has grown at such a rate that it has forged its own in defining its present future. The geographic exchange of musics (not category) has enriched this community and holds it steadfast in its mission to be the medium with an appetite for expressing the moment. It is this Collective Imagination that is presenting the new challenge to technology and tradition with the hope of helping in the humanitarian need to broaden the language of communication. Here and now we have the possibility of helping to open new doors of employment to a community that has patiently awaited its turn to pave the way to the New Tradition, a product equal to the challenge.”

In his online resume, Morris further stated that he employed “more than 5,000 musicians in 23 countries and 63 cities, resulting in 26 CDs over a 25-year period. Conduction has amply demonstrated its capacity for cultural diplomacy by uniting communities and serving as a powerful example of a new social logic based on collective interpretation and personal interaction.”

Morris recorded with Murray on several albums beginning in the ’70s, and also recorded with Frank Lowe, Bill Horvitz, Steve Lacy, Billy Bang, Elliott Sharp, A.R. Penck, Alice Coltrane, Gil Evans, Philly Joe Jones, Cecil Taylor and others. In recent years he worked with the group Burnt Sugar. He also applied Conduction to collaborations with artists in film, theater, dance and other arts, as well as writers. Morris released a number of albums as a leader beginning in 1979, several of them illustrating his work in Conduction. He also lectured widely. Morris received funding for his work through many organizations, among them the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally Published