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Steven Bernstein remembers friend and bandmate Henry Butler with a Hot 9 tribute.
In 1984, Steven Bernstein was a free-thinking trumpeter, not yet 23 years old, steeped in jazz tradition but only as a starting place for unbound musical explorations. As a listener, he was fixated on “Code M.D.,” the third song on Decoy, the latest album from Miles Davis. Just then, a summer tour with the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling and comedy troupe, had landed him at the Vancouver Folk Festival.
“I’m wandering around this outdoor festival,” Bernstein tells me from his current home in upstate New York, “and I hear this guy playing piano and singing. He’s somehow veering from Cecil Taylor to modern classical music to music that sounds so old you can only imagine you might have heard it. But it’s also somehow futuristic. It was Henry. He didn’t even have an album out yet. I bought a cassette of his music.”
That’s how Steven Bernstein met Henry Butler, a blind Black pianist and singer 13years his senior, who died in 2018, at 69. New Orleans, where Butler was born and raised, claims him within its lineage of distinctive piano virtuosos that begins with Jelly Roll Morton and includes Professor Longhair. That frame fits Butler’s impressive technical skills and his innate sense of rhythm, but it fails to acknowledge his range. In performance, as Butler segued from, say, an Allen Toussaint R&B hit to a Thelonious Monk composition, categories simply fell away.
All of which befit Bernstein’s ambitions.Now 60, Bernstein has been ubiquitous as both a player and a composer-arranger on New York City’s music scene for some 40 years. His own bands, especially his Sexmob quartet and his nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra, each more than 20 years running, are grounded in the notion that categories don’t really exist. “I don’t need it to sound like you’re playing the music correctly in one style or another,” Bernstein once told me of the musicians he chooses for his bands. “I need it to sound like it’s you.”
“Fast forward to 1996,” Bernstein says, picking up his Henry Butler story. Bernstein had arranged much of the music for Robert Altman’s film, Kansas City, in which dead jazz legends (saxophonist Ben Webster and pianist Mary Lou Williams, among others) portrayed by living stars (including saxophonist James Carter and pianist Geri Allen) were as integral as the mobsters who drove the plot. When the Verve label funded a high-profile concert tour in support of the soundtrack album, “It was my job to book the band,” Bernstein says. “I called Henry up for that tour and I couldn’t believe it when he said yes. I was literally giggling with joy.”
By then, Butler was well-known. His 1986 debut recording, Fivin’ Around, featured stellar modern-jazz players: bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. On his 1990 album, Orleans Inspiration, he led hometown funk heroes, including guitarist Leo Nocentelli. (By the late ’90s, he’d be immersed in Delta blues, singing and playing in collaboration with guitarist and singer Corey Harris.)Good as Butler was in that Kansas City band, he mostly stuck to period-specific evocations of Mary Lou Williams. Bernstein longed to work with the pianist again, “in a situation where Henry could really be Henry.”
Cut again, to 2011. By then, following the devastation resulting from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina, Butler had relocated to New York City. Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra — modeled after and named for the regional dance bands of the 1920s and ’30s (so-called “territory bands”) and yet which devoted an album to Sly and the Family Stone’s songs — was booked to play a blues festival in downtown Manhattan. Bernstein enlisted Butler as a special guest. They revisited the idea with six nights at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. After that gig, Butler told me, “Steven is a kindred spirit, and these guys are refreshing to play with. They understand that repertoire is always just a starting point.”
Both Butler and Bernstein sensed a deeper collaboration. The sound of the Hot 9 — the band they created — began at Butler’s piano, in his Brooklyn apartment. There sat Bernstein, tape recorder in hand, while Butler played early jazz and blues songs and his own compositions. Bernstein isolated details within Butler’s improvisations — “Henryisms,” he calls them — and assigned them to various instruments. “When we perform, Henry is hearing himself played back,” Bernstein told me a decade ago. “We’re all playing Henryisms. You have Henry improvising in the moment, while you’re also hearing what Henry had improvised earlier, as played by other instruments.”Viper’s Drag, released in 2014 on a revived version of Impulse!, the label that released Butler’s first recording, began with the title track, a fresh-sounding rendition of a Fats Waller composition first popularized by Cab Calloway in 1930.
I caught Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 as often as I could in the years that followed. At their best, while Butler was still strong, it was like watching a star athlete play on a winning team built around his talents: Everyone’s level gets raised in a game controlled and defined by the star player. I’ll never forget, either, the last time I heard them play, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, two months before Butler’s death. The pianist was a shadow of his former self, ravaged by cancer. Yet his brilliance shone through, in large part due to the band, which played his ideas with such commitment and force. At the end, there was Bernstein, arm around Butler, leading the pianist offstage one last time.
Cut to early 2020. Bernstein gathered his circle of musicians for four days at a Brooklyn recording studio, to record four separate albums in a series called Community Music. Volume three in the series, released in May, was Manifesto of Henryisms, a distillation of Butler’s musical spirit through a reworking of the Hot 9’s songbook. “Now that Henry’s gone,” Bernstein says, “I told the guys, ‘Henry isn’t here anymore. We’re not a New Orleans band anymore. But we’re going to be something because of what Henry did to us.’”
No one can replace Butler at the keyboard. But on Manifesto, John Medeski’s organ lends grease and grit to the Hot 9’s version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp.” And Arturo O’Farrill plays chorus after chorus of piano solos with an intensity that recalls Butler’s own on the arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” that Bernstein wrote when the Hot 9 played the Newport Jazz Festival in 2016. Best of all is “Bogalusa Strut,” composed by New Orleans trumpeter Sam Morgan nearly a century ago. It stays true to the version the Hot 9 played with Butler for about four minutes. Then, Bernstein’s trumpet signals a new direction, a song within the song — weird, both triumphant and mournful, set to a rhythm that is both skittering and deeply funky.
“I wrote that ending because I heard it, so we had to do it,” Bernstein says. “It’s not something Henry ever played, but he’s in there because, by now, he’s in us.” - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.