I first heard Henry Butler in 1984, at the Vancouver Folk Festival, playing solo piano and singing. I had just arrived directly from the Eugene Country Fair, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was simultaneously the most ancient music and the most futuristic music I’d ever heard. Piano chords from the future and a voice bellowing from the past. After that mind-altering performance I became a total fan, and when his albums on Impulse! came out, they were in heavy rotation on my turntable.
I finally met Henry in 1995 when we were putting together a band for the Kansas City All-Stars on a cross-country Verve tour (alongside Joe Henderson and Charlie Haden). None of the NYC regulars were available, so producer Hal Willner immediately suggested that I call Henry. He brought down the house every night, and played with such power that sometimes you could see dust (smoke?) rising from the keys.
I continued to follow Henry’s career after that, though we didn’t see each other much. It was interesting to see him redefine himself as a blues-and-roots musician, and I wore out the CD Blues After Sunset, with featured New Orleans legend Snooks Eaglin.
Henry was a true original, not just as a musician but as a human being. He had a degree in opera performance, studied religious and esoteric philosophies, was health- and diet-conscious, and was supremely aware of his place in the music business. He read contracts with more focus and intensity than anyone I had met. He was recognized as a great photographer, and had multiple shows of his work.
He lost everything in Katrina. His house, his piano, his recordings, his sheet music, all his archives. He relocated to Colorado and became an important part of the music scene there. In 2011 producer Jay Weisman was putting together a summer blues festival and commissioned a book of arrangements of the early blues for my Millennial Territory Orchestra. He asked me if I would be into having Henry Butler be part of the concert. I’d lost track of Henry and assumed he was still in New Orleans. Jay surprised me by saying he was living in an apartment in downtown Brooklyn. We had a great reunion at his place (16 years after the Verve tour), I recorded him playing his piano, and we got to work. The concert was so successful that Henry called me up and suggested that I arrange some more of his songs, and we booked a run at the Jazz Standard. The music was powerful, and we immediately got together afterward to discuss future plans. I told Henry, “No one sounds like the two of us,” and he responded, “Yes, and no one looks like the two of us.”
I had seven amazing years playing music with Henry, and never once was I less than awestruck by his abilities. Every night he would invent incredible piano introductions and interludes, melodies arriving out of thin air, runs so fast that his hands would be a blur. Henry always wanted the audience to see his hands.
I’ve never met a musician so beloved by his audiences. He played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival almost every year since it started (I think he missed the Katrina year) and the shows were always packed, the audience worshipful. Everyone who loved music worshipped Henry. People would stop me on the street in New Orleans to talk about Henry—tourists, musicians, locals. Henry touched them all. He was just that magic, and real, and awe-inspiring, and uncompromising.
Two quick stories:
After Charlie Haden’s memorial Roswell Rudd called me up and said, “Your friend Henry was amazing. All the musicians who played were so fine, and played their hearts out, but Henry changed the molecules in the room.”
Henry spent the last few months of his life focused on beating his cancer, and didn’t pick up the phone much, but I called almost every day. When he felt strong, he would pick up. About a month before Jazz Fest he picked up: “Hey big fella.” I could hear that he wasn’t 100 percent but he was always ready to go and said, “Steven, that horn soli on ‘Mardi Gras in New Orleans’ isn’t right. You need to write some 16th notes and triplets!” Here I was worried that he wouldn’t make it to Jazz Fest, and he’s schooling me on getting the music correct. I wrote the best soli I could for him, something like he would play, with lots of 16th notes and triplets and wild harmonic moves. We rehearsed it with just the horns, and when he showed up to what would be our last rehearsal, gaunt and skinny, we played it for him while he faced the piano. He turned and smiled and said, “You got it right.”