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Eclectic pianist carries Monk legacy

"He marched to the beat of the drum that he created-not only the drumbeat but the drum itself. He made no bones about it."

That's what pianist Henry Butler has to say about Thelonious Monk, the late great jazzman who he'll celebrate at Duke tonight. In an interview Wednesday, Butler spoke effusively about Monk, but he knows a little something about creating his own drumbeat-and, in his case, also his own piano part, vocal line, baritone horn or trombone riff. He's used each of these instruments in his musical life, which stretches back to picking up the piano at age six.

For some, Henry Butler fits into the lineage of great New Orleans pianists that starts with Jelly Roll Morton and includes the likes of Professor Longhair. But don't lock him into that mold-although he has cut records with players like Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, his first records were anchored by Ornette Coleman's great rhythm duo of Charlie Haden-the bassist who played on campus Sunday-and Billy Higgins.

"It's a lazy man's dream to get someone who does one thing and does it really well," he said. "I enjoy doing a lot of things well and I started that when I was in New Orleans, when I was growing up in New Orleans. When I actually started my little stint at the Louisiana School for the Blind, they continued to develop that. And most of the people that I knew in New Orleans were very eclectic."

Oh, that's right-Butler has been blind since birth. But he said being without sight has actually been an aid. Never having had sight, he said, has allowed him to internalize some things and keep to the music.

"You can turn anything into an advantage," he said, speaking in a deep, clear, deliberate voice-by no means parsimonious with his words, but taking great care to choose each word. "I don't necessarily think that blindness is a disadvantage. Sight can be a distraction if you don't use it constructively."

The academic approach is manifest in everything he says, like his analysis of the failure of certain, unnamed great jazz musicians to play convincing funk.

"These are wonderful players, and they could have played it-it's all mental, it's how you see yourself as a musician," he said.

As for Butler. funk was never a problem. After studying classical music early in his career-his high school senior recital was dominated by classical voice literature, he said-he played nightclub gigs regularly in his late teens. His jazz proficiency developed more when he began to study with clarinetist Alvin Batiste at Michigan State University.

"I was able to spend more time with jazz when I entered college because I had more practice time and more evolved guidance from people like Alvin. I was fortunate that before I left college, Alvin set up a situation where I could spend time with Cannonball Adderley and George Duke, Roland Hanna, Harold Mabern," he said.

And although he had been introduced to Monk before entering college, he found that he had the tools to understand and play the master's music. Batiste worked him through Monk on a conceptual level, and only after that attacked the repetoire.

One link Butler has with Monk, he said, is roots in the blues.

"If you listen for instance to the music of Thelonious, you will realize that he had to have known the blues," he said. "Just like most jazz players, they had to have known it, even if it's just in their own practice."

As an educator, Butler said he has found blues knowledge lacking in many of his own students and in other young players he hears.

"I'm going to tell you this because I've found it in my teaching to be true. Most Caucasian students neglect the blues, especially saxophonists, even though they're trying to play Charlie Parker, and it's not until we can get them to a place where they can acknowledge that he used lots of blues flavoring and phrased like a blues artist [that they get it]."

Butler has one more gripe: He said the way classical music is taught today has contributed to its struggles. Editors have taken works by the Beethovens and Debussys, he said, and enforced and codified phrasing and markings that the composers never intended.

"If they ever saw what G. Schirmer and Boosey and Hawkes and all these guys have come up with over the last century and a half, they'd do more than turn over in their grave," he said.

So don't go to Butler's concert expecting to hear perfect facsimiles of Monk's music.

"You can expect that Henry Butler will play some Monk compositions the way that Henry Butler wants to play them," he said. "I want to celebrate Thelonious Monk by being creative. I want to celebrate Thelonious Monk when I play his compositions by taking them where I want to take them."

Henry Butler will perform solo at the Nelson Music Room in the East Duke Building tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, $5 for students.


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