More than most artists to whom this overworked term has been applied, Henry Butler is a Renaissance man. He conjures up alternating but non-conflicting images: past and present, jazz and classical, R&B and gospel, solo and orchestral, instrumental and vocal.
Though he has been around for a while (he will be 38 next month), it seems that after years of treading water his time has come. The years of study at the Louisiana State School for the Blind, of hanging out with McCoy Tyner and other role models, of unnoticed jobs in obscure clubs, have finally led to the one essential step: He is now a recording artist.
His debut LP, "Fivin' Around" (Impulse 5707), presents him in several settings. His basic support comes from bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, but here and there can be heard a flute or sax or oboe; on three cuts, Freddie Hubbard's trumpet; on two, a string quartet, and on one of the latter, Butler the classical singer applies his somber baritone to a very straight rendition of "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me."
If the album offers a multifaceted picture, the reason is clear: Butler has no desire to be pigeonholed in any one area. He is a composer whose influences range from Tyner to John Coltrane to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; an arranger who dared to convert Coltrane's breakneck "Giant Steps" into a ballad. Though New Orleans born, he is not just a New Orleans jazzman.
Looking back over his career, speaking very softly, Butler said: "I didn't even tell my parents when I first started playing. The school was in Baton Rouge, and I guess my teachers informed them that I was going to give a recital. I was the only musician in the family.
"When I went to Southern University, I switched my major from piano to voice. What happened was, I lost track of the traditional fingering system on the piano, and one day, when I played Beethoven's 'Sonata Pathetique,' some intern came along and said, 'God, where did you get that fingering?' I figured that might become a major problem, so I decided that instead of staying with classical piano I'd take up voice."
Singing with glee clubs and choirs, he built a repertoire of spirituals and oratorios, but also took part in a jazz studies program directed by clarinetist Alvin Batiste. "He was sort of guru to me--a very articulate teacher and demonstrator. I was young and rather mischievous; he had a lot of patience with me. He started a jazz institute at the University around 1970; we entered a few college jazz festivals and won some awards, which helped our confidence."
Another influence on Butler was George Duke, then Cannonball Adderley's pianist. "We were both well-versed in the classical terminology--George had written an opera for his master's thesis--so we understood one another right away." Butler studied with Duke and with Roland Hanna, a no-less-scholarly pianist, under grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
For a while, Butler went to New York almost every summer, "just to hang out with people like McCoy Tyner, toil in the vineyard and try to develop my own language. I started doing serious jazz jobs around Louisiana as early as 1970, but in New Orleans all you hear about is going to New York. Well, I'm always happiest when I'm comfortable, and I couldn't find the kind of housing I wanted in New York. I sent a friend of mine to Los Angeles, and she found a house in about a week. This was in 1980, and a few months later I came out and began working in a little restaurant."
For a while, things seemed no better in Los Angeles than they had been in New Orleans or New York. "I spent some time at the Club Lingerie in Hollywood, playing New Orleans-style R&B with a lot of blues artists from back home."
The pivotal turn for the better took place one night at the Comeback Inn when pianist Milcho Leviev invited him to sit in for a few numbers, backed by Haden and Higgins. The word spread fast; Haden even went so far as to compare Butler to Art Tatum, posing a heavier burden than any living pianist can bear. But before long he came to the attention of the record company, and things began to fall into place.
"Being able to sit in with cats like that was a hell of a thing for me. Before long Fred Myrow, the music director at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, booked me for my concert." That occasion enabled Butler to display his several talents. Myrow helped him in the transcribing of some string-quartet arrangements; Butler gave vent to his quasi-Robeson voice in four spirituals, introduced several original piano works, and ran the keyboard gamut from ragtime to funk.
This year, he has broken into the festival circuit, playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, both produced by George Wein, whose admiration for him could lead to many other openings.