RIP at 68: KUVO's long-time friend, Henry Butler

Jul 9, 2018


Arturo Gómez, Monty Alexander, Carlos Lando & Henry Butler
Credit KUVO Jazz

Pianist/vocalist Henry Butler RIP at 68

Sept, 21, 1949, New Orleans, LA to  July,2, 2018, NYC, NY

Henry Butler, the imposing R&B and jazz pianist, died in New York City on Monday, July 2, according to his manager Art Edelstein and agent Maurice Montoya. He was 68 years old.  Butler died of end-stage cancer, Montoya confirmed. He had been diagnosed with the illness more than a year ago. "He really fought hard," Edelstein said, continuing to perform up until what's believed to be his last show on June 18 in New York. "He's really been active, but his body just gave out."

Over the years Henry became  friends with many KUVO Jazz staff, on-air hosts, members and volunteers. He played many times in the Phyllis A. Greer Performance Studio, at the Balistreri Live at the Vineyards signature event and would also help raise funds during our membership drives. He will be missed!

Butler was blinded by glaucoma in infancy. His musical training began at the Louisiana State School for the Blind, where he learned to play valve trombone, baritone horn and drums before focusing his talents on singing and piano.]Butler was mentored at Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste. Butler later earned a master's degree in music at Michigan State University in 1974, and received the MSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated Butler's home in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. His 1925 vintage Mason & Hamlin piano was wrecked by flood waters that rose to nearly eight feet inside his house.  In the wake of Katrina's damage, Butler left New Orleans and briefly relocated to Colorado, living first in Boulder and then Denver. In 2009, Butler relocated again to New York City.

Butler pursued photography as a hobby since 1984, as an outgrowth of attending art exhibits in Los Angeles and asking friends to describe featured works. His methods and photos were featured in an HBO2 documentary, Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers, that aired in 2010.  Butler's photographs were also shown in galleries in New Orleans

At the Louisiana State School for the Blind, he learned to memorize classical scores written in Braille, before translating them to the keyboard. He continued his musical studies at Southern University, where he honed the use of his resonant singing voice.

Many have been impressed by Mr. Butler's lack of reliance on others. Henry's unbelievable--and unbelievably independent and always has been," Edelstein said. "He got all over the world on his own."

Mr. Butler was a powerful presence at Crescent City clubs and festivals for decades, and traveled extensively to deliver the New Orleans piano tradition to the world. In addition, Butler practiced photography, relying on friends to describe the scenes he then shot. His photos were symbols of his unwillingness to accept his visual limitations.

In early 2017, word reached New Orleans that Mr. Butler had been diagnosed with advanced cancer. He continued to perform.  "He had a bright outlook for the future," Montoya said, describing how he and Mr. Butler decided to keep booking gigs for Mr. Butler despite his illness. Mr. Butler had a European tour scheduled for this summer.

"He's going to stay with us," Montoya said. "If you went to his concerts, you can still hear him in your mind."

Both Edelstein and Montoya described Butler as the last in a line of distinctive New Orleans pianists like icons James Booker and Professor Longhair. "They all incorporated so much of New Orleans history," Edelstein said, mixing sounds from 1950s New Orleans R&B, jazz, Latin music and other styles reflective of the city's colorful influences. "Henry really is the last of that tradition."

Butler did not turn over his earthly seat at the piano bench easily, Edelstein and Montoya said, but remained active in at least two bands, touring China and Australia in May, and continued performing solo gigs up until about two weeks ago. He also played this spring's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. "I think he's still playing," Edelstein said. "He's just playing somewhere else."

Henry Butler at Balistreri Vineyards
Credit KUVO Jazz