Widely hailed as a pianist and vocalist, both as a solo artist and with a variety of groups – considered by many to be the premier exponent of the great New Orleans jazz and blues piano tradition – Henry Butler is respected for his versatile work as a composer and arranger in a broad range of genres, and as a speaker and educator in high demand on conference programs and college campuses around the country.
Born blind in New Orleans, Louisiana, Henry was admitted to the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge at age 5. By the age of 12, he was not only performing regularly but arranging and composing for the groups with whom he worked. He earned degrees at Southern University, Baton Rouge, and Michigan State University. He studied with Sir Roland Hanna, Cannonball Adderly and his pianist, George Duke, Harold Mabern, and New Orleans’ original piano genius, Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair. Heading west to Los Angeles, he worked for the Stevie Wonder organization in conjunction with Motown. His first recording, Fivin’ Around, featuring Charlie Haden, the late Billy Higgins, and the late Freddie Hubbard, was extremely well received. To enhance his visibility, he moved to New York shortly after recording his double album, The Village.
Things began to happen: he had coveted attention in publications like Downbeat and Jazz Times, played all the major clubs in New York City, and appeared at major festivals around the country and abroad. When the State Department organized a tour to Russia headlined by Grover Washington, Henry was invited.
As much as he enjoyed traveling and performing, he believed in teaching so he spent six years at Eastern Illinois University molding young musicians, many of whom are now featured performers in major jazz orchestras, like Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Acutely aware of the largely un-met needs of gifted blind/visually impaired teen musicians of all backgrounds, he developed a concept for an intensive music and industry-related summer camp where talented young people were given first-class instruction in performance skills and the adaptive technology which allowed them to keep up with their sighted peers. He has held these camps at several locations around the country.
Leaving Illinois, he returned home to New Orleans, the fertile home turf on which he developed his musical personae: as a soloist, in various groups, trios, quartets and full bands. There was, quite literally, no genre of music which Henry left untouched. Even Katrina couldn’t stop him. Within days of learning that he had lost not only valuable instruments and equipment but most of his life’s work – unpublished compositions, reel-to-reel recordings of work in progress, and an enormous library of musical material in Braille – Henry was in Austin, Texas, congregating with a core group of preeminent New Orleans musicians known as The New Orleans Social Club. Their recording was “Sing Me Back Home,” among the first and certainly among the most powerful of the post-Katrina recordings. Extensive touring followed almost immediately.
Having established a home-base in Colorado and released his first live solo album, PiaNOLA Live, he now spends most of his time in New York City, where he mixes it up with major figures in jazz and blues on a regular basis. In 2011, he began work on a new recording, spent two weeks at the prestigious Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, and in November, brought an all-star blues group, Henry Butler and Jambalaya, to Manhattan’s premier music venue, The Jazz Standard. In 2012, he will take the stage at Lincoln Center for a program he created to explore New Orleans piano, sharing the evenings with patriarch Ellis Marsalis and young Jonathan Battiste, one of his own former students.