If New Orleans-born pianist and vocalist Henry Butler isn't as widely known in music circles as some of his heavyweight peers, it's partly because he refuses to settle on, or for, any single musical mode. True to the passionate spirit of his eclectic home turf, Butler mixes classically trained sophistication and crackling improvisation with an earnest, street-level strut.
His varied discography includes several solo projects and session dates with jazz luminaries such as bassist Ron Carter and contemporary blues singer-guitarist Corey Harris. Yet regardless of the genre he's playing in, you can always hear nods -- some sidelong, some lovingly direct -- to the vibrant Crescent City giants who paved a way for his singular artistry.
Blind since birth, Butler never actually saw the havoc wrought by Hurricane Katrina last August, just hours after he evacuated his home in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. During this interview, though, the husky-voiced 57-year-old received a package containing annotated photographs of what was left behind. "They're supposed to show all the damage," he said. "So I'll have to have other people look at them and deal with it that way." One gets the feeling that even though Butler can't see, he's heard it all. And it's crystal clear that he has a vision for resurrecting (and correcting) a music scene that more than a few natives worry may have been lost at sea.
JAMES DIERS: Do a lot of musicians have homes in Gentilly?
HENRY BUTLER: Yeah, it's part of the Seventh Ward, it's one of the main areas of Creole culture. There definitely were a lot of musicians and artists living there. So a lot of us are out of our houses.
JD: Your new home base is in Boulder, Colorado. What's it going to take for you to go back to New Orleans?
HB: As much as I would like to go back, I don't really have much confidence in the leadership down there. They didn't even have an emergency preparedness center. I mean, you're in a hurricane zone, so I don't understand it. It's kind of strange. All the corruption and graft that existed pre-Katrina will have to be addressed.
JD: So it's too early to tell whether you'll move back permanently?
HB: I didn't depend on gigs in New Orleans to keep me alive, so I could live almost anywhere. Whether I choose to go back will hinge on economic issues, including whether or not I can afford to rebuild. New Orleans doesn't really have much for musicians outside of a few private gigs and a few club gigs. They don't have much industry there, there's not a lot of studio work there, and there's not a lot in terms of teaching or consulting with corporate entities. New Orleans will have to realize the need to put some incentives together to get some of these [musicians] back.
JD: What would it take to make those incentives meaningful?
HB: If I was one of the leaders in New Orleans, knowing that most of the musicians who had to leave are not rich, I would create a group of businesspeople or philanthropists who could "adopt" a musician or a band or a musical entity and really help them rebuild and realize a comfortable existence. I don't hear much of that kind of thing taking place. It's still "every man for himself, and God help us all." Most of the help is coming from [independent] entities: Preservation Hall is helping musicians, and the Musicians' Clinic does some wonderful work. But it would be nice to see the city create something, especially since they say musicians are one of the treasures of the city. If musicians are part of the engine that brings in $7 billion or $8 billion in tourist money, then why not do something to help them?
When I say "the city" I don't mean just the political arm, I mean the business community. And an educational arm should be set up so that more musicians realize how they can make a living as artists. Most of New Orleans' 20th-century musicians died as paupers, including Professor Longhair and James Booker and Tommy Ridgley, people who set new standards for New Orleans music and performance. We hold them in great esteem as heroes, but we also have to learn to treat musicians as great people when it comes to negotiating and hiring them when they perform.
JD: Are musicians' needs being figured into the recovery agenda?
HB: Well, contrary to what most people think about New Orleans, there really is a lot of money in the area. But the wealth has been unevenly distributed, and if that continues, I don't foresee much development in musical circles. . . . You've got people who love the music but don't want to pay for it. In terms of the pay scale, the clubs haven't shown much respect either. That's been the case for a long time.
Look at how Louis Armstrong had to live his life down there. He was not only a musician, but, to make ends meet, also a little bit of a pimp and a hustler. Many of the guys in the early part of the 20th century had other jobs and played music at night; it's much the same now. And people who chose not to stay in New Orleans seem to have garnered more national visibility and perhaps respect: Look at people like Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Before I decided to come back to New Orleans, even I had more national visibility and respect. Even now, the pay scale for gigs outside of New Orleans is very different. Strangely enough, in the aftermath of Katrina, many musicians are realizing for the first time -- many of these guys had never left New Orleans -- that people [in other cities] are showing respect for the talents they have and the products they offer, and they're paying for it. Unfortunately for New Orleans, many of these guys are thinking about not coming back.
JD: Wynton Marsalis recently spoke to Congress in his role as a member of the rebuilding commission. Did you happen to catch any of that?
HB: No, I didn't hear that. [That's] one of the mistakes and one of the things that sort of lets me know where [the commission] is headed. Wynton is the only artist on the commission, and he doesn't even live in New Orleans. That doesn't mean he doesn't love New Orleans, it doesn't mean he doesn't care for the city, but they should have had someone who lives in the city and who's a little more in touch with some of the challenges.
JD: Are there particular places in the city that you, as a native, would like to see preserved or revived?
HB: It was certainly nice to be in the area around Frenchmen Street, where there's a little bit of a district that had live clubs, sort of like a miniature version of the Village in New York. There's Snug Harbor, dba, the Blue Nile, Cafe Brasil, some pretty good eateries. I think that's one of the things they can expand on that would help the city's economy. With the crime rate soaring, people would feel safer just being in one area where they could walk to a club and then go to another club across the street.
New Orleans needs to work on Bourbon Street. That's an area where they really lost control aesthetically. Unfortunately, much of what you see on Bourbon Street you can find in any city that has tourism. I think they need to offer incentives to club owners, like a 20 or 25 percent tax break if you bring in traditional jazz at least four times a week. Or if clubs bring in New Orleans natives to perform, give them a tax break. These sorts of things would get people to come back to Bourbon Street more often. Right now, you just get a lot of T-shirts, which in many cases have nothing to do with the city.
JD: Is it difficult for you as an artist to feel like you can participate in the political side of the rebuilding effort?
HB: I certainly wouldn't mind helping, but I'm not interested in dealing with status quo stuff. I want to see something happen, so that's where I'd be coming from. I'd be interested not only in rebuilding, but also in meaningful modifications that address what musicians and artists need. We have to get political people who know a little bit about the musical culture there. Most don't. Some people, when I've heard them speak about the music of New Orleans, know very little about any of it. It might help if they made an effort to learn a little bit about the history of New Orleans jazz or the history of jazz, especially since New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz.
I love the city, but I also like to think of myself as a pretty good observer, and sometimes we have to point out things that are not the greatest. And sometimes New Orleanians don't like to hear or think about those things. As soon as we can get a handle on the drug scene, the crime, the educational system, I think we're going to be a great city again.
To learn more about Henry Butler and his music, see www.henrybutler.com.