Henry Butler Brings New Orleans to NPR Blind since birth, the New Orleans piano wizard embraces all of the bluesy musical styles of his native city, as well as the classical training of his youth. He gives an interview and performance in NPR's Studio 4A.
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Henry Butler Brings New Orleans to NPR

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Henry Butler Brings New Orleans to NPR

Henry Butler Brings New Orleans to NPR

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This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel


And I'm Melissa Block

The New Orleans pianist Henry Butler paid us a visit recently. He sat down at the grand piano in our studio and ran his fingers across the microphone. Looks like a Sennheiser, he said, which struck me as interesting since Henry Butler is blind.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Henry Butler has wide strong hands that dominate the keys. As he warms up on rhythmic pieces, his left knee bounces just about as high as the keyboard itself.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Butler started playing piano as a child in a New Orleans housing project. He went on to study at the Louisiana State School for the Blind, learning classical piano scores in Braille.

At Southern University, he majored in voice, minored in piano. Classical, jazz funk, blues, it all filters into his playing. Henry Butler has a new CD called "PiaNOLA Live." After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, his precious baby grand, and a lifetime of collected tapes and sheet music in Braille, he moved to Denver. But New Orleans is never far form his mind and his musical thoughts. Would you play something for us?

Mr. HENRY BUTLER (Musician): Well, yes.

BLOCK: You got that piano; it's waiting for you right now.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, why not start with "Basin St. Blues"?

(Soundbite of song, "Basin St. Blues")

BLOCK: Now, that's great. I feel like I'm in the New Orleans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTLER: It is a New Orleans tune.

BLOCK: Do you remember the first time you figured out, when you are a young kid, how to play that song?

Mr. BUTLER: Well, I used to hear it a lot when I was, oh, 10, 11, 12, and I'd go down to Bourbon Street. In those clubs they had bands from about 12:00 o'clock noon on through, what, three o'clock in the morning, you know. So if you were young, you could go down and still hear a lot of people playing in the daytime. And people would play this tune and "When the Saints Go Marching In." And I got to the point where I sort of put it in the tourist music category.

BLOCK: Tourist music would be something you would be looking down your nose at, just something for the masses, that wasn't worth your time.

Mr. BUTLER: Well, we had saw it as tourist music because in those days, we used to see a lot of people getting drunk. So we sort of associated this music with that kind of stuff. As I grew older, I realized that it really wasn't the music that was the problem.

BLOCK: It was the tourists.

Mr. BUTLER: Probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: One of the people who influenced you, and who I gather, you had some sessions with was Professor Longhair...

Mr. BUTLER: Yes.

BLOCK: ...the great New Orleans blues pianist.

Mr. BUTLER: Yes.

BLOCK: What did you learn from him?

Mr. BUTLER: Professor Longhair was a very interesting man. He certainly changed the way people played rhythm and blues. He was the guy that brought the Caribbean rhythms into the music more than anybody else, probably. He brought the mambo and what some people call Rumba, Boogie more to the fore. One of the rhythms that he based a lot of his left-hand playing on was the bambula rhythm.

BLOCK: Bambula?

Mr. BUTLER: Bambula, yeah.


Right? And so you can slow that down, so you get...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, and that happens in a lot of his pieces. A lot of New Orleans musicians used that in their musical writing, their musical performances. And it certainly makes New Orleans music more unique in the rhythmic part of the musical structure than, say, a lot of musical styles nationally.

BLOCK: You do the classic, Professor Longhair song "Tipitina" on this new live CD, and it's great to hear that melody emerging from the improvisation that you do at the beginning of the song and then there it comes.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, when I was doing it, I was really thinking more of how the Presbyterian religious hymns might sound, you know, this kind of...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. BUTLER: ...this kind of thing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BUTLER: And then at a point, we decided we have to abandon that and get into more rhythmic stuff.

BLOCK: Let's take a listen from the CD.

Mr. BUTLER: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Tipitina")

BLOCK: And there it is. Right when people are wondering where is "Tipitina."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah? Well, you know what, that's - we do that a lot in concerts. We don't try to give things the way. As a matter of fact, in most of the concerts that we do, we like to keep them guessing a little bit.

BLOCK: Definitely heard some of the classical upbringing in there, sort of a little piano etude thrown in there.

Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, well, we do that. Man, that's fun. That's just - it's a joy to kind of create on the spot like that.

BLOCK: Well, Henry Butler, it's been a pleasure to talk to you and to hear you play today. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. BUTLER: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And would you mind taking us out with some music?

Mr. BUTLER: This is something that's on the "Piano Alive" CD: "Something You Got."

(Soundbite of song, "Something You Got")

Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Something you got makes me work all day. Something you got, baby, makes me bring home my pay. Something you got, you ought to know, woman, oh, I love you so. Something you got makes me stay home at night. Something you got, baby, makes me feel all right. Something you got, you ought to know, darling, oh, I love you so.

NORRIS: Henry Butler, playing in our studios. His new CD is titled "Pianola Live." Henry Butler is also an avid photographer. You can hear him talk about how he sees and frames images as a blind man, and you'll find some of his photographs at our Web site: npr.org.

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