Pianist and Singer Henry Butler Dies at 68

His nearly lifelong blindness didn’t stop him from becoming a modern master of New Orleans music

Pianist Henry Butler passed away on July 2, 2018 at the age of 69. (photo: Tim Ellis)

Henry Butler, the multifaceted New Orleans pianist and singer whose style encompassed several strains of jazz as well as elements of blues, pop, classical, funk, gospel, R&B, and Caribbean music, died yesterday (July 2) in New York. Butler, who was 68, had been battling end-stage cancer for more than a year.

An online fundraising campaign made it possible for Butler to travel to Germany for experimental treatments, but “his body just gave out,” his manager, Art Edelstein, said in a statement.

Blind since infancy, Butler—born Sept. 21, 1949, in New Orleans—grew up in the Calliope Projects in New Orleans. He taught himself to play piano by ear and was working professionally by age 12, while learning classical scores from Braille sheet music. He also learned trombone, baritone horn, and drums. After graduating from Southern University, Butler began building his reputation within the competitive New Orleans scene, playing clubs and festivals. He later received a master’s degree from Michigan State University.

Often described as the inheritor of the classic New Orleans piano style popularized by Professor Longhair and James Booker, Butler began releasing albums as a leader in the late 1980s, recording for such labels as Impulse!, Windham Hill, and Basin Street. He also worked as a sideman and collaborator; his playing can be heard on recordings by Corey Harris, Cyndi Lauper, and James Carter, among others. Reviewing the 2014 release Viper’s Drag, credited to Butler, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9, JazzTimes’ Steve Greenlee wrote, “Close your eyes and you could be anywhere, anytime: New Orleans circa 1920s, Kansas City circa 1940s, New York circa 2014.”

Butler toured extensively throughout the world and also served as an educator, conducting workshops and master classes. According to the bio on his website, he developed a camp for blind and visually impaired teen musicians, and was the subject of a 2010 documentary, The Music’s Gonna Get You Through. In addition, he was an avid photographer, asking sighted companions to describe a scene and then shooting it; his work was featured in the documentary Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers.

Butler’s New Orleans home was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He relocated to New York and settled in Brooklyn, where he resided for the rest of his life. He continued performing during his illness, touring Australia and China in May and going out on solo gigs until only two weeks before his death.

Watch a video clip from 2016 in which Henry Butler talks to JazzTimes about his love of photography. 

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.