Henry Butler remembers the time well. He was making mischief, but not in his native New Orleans. No, the veteran pianist, vocalist and Crescent City song stylist had found his own little corner of the Bluegrass to play in.
“I have some friends that live down in Russellville,” Butler says. “So we used to go down there, sort of under the radar. We would do workshops in the schools and scholarship things. But from time to time, I would go on some of the back roads in one of their trucks and drive around, cut a few doughnuts. I remember once when it was rainy outside and it was real muddy. I was slinging mud everywhere. I enjoyed that.”
But there is one part of the story Butler left out. He has been blind since contracting glaucoma as an infant.
“Oh, I did a lot of crazy driving stuff.”
This rural remembrance doesn’t necessarily reflect the kind of stylistic diversity Butler has long explored under the blanket of New Orleans musical tradition. It doesn’t illuminate the deep, gospel-esque tenor that awakens when he sings along with the keys, the vast reaches of his education (as both student and instructor) or a largely peerless artistic reputation among a far-reaching group of fellow pianists, including fellow New Orleans journeyman Dr. John (with whom he shared a Town Hall concert bill in New York over the summer), and Windham Hill alumnus George Winston (who co-produced a stirring solo piano/vocal album “Pianola Live” for Butler in 2008 after championing his playing for decades). What Butler’s Russellville adventure does, however, is suggest the boundless spirit and experience that fuels his music.
“Whether we know it or not, we are the sum total of all of our experiences,” he said. “Everything I do has a bit of my education and has a bit of my life experiences. Of course, my life experiences are a part of — and have been a part of — my formal education. The kinds of the things I’ve experienced in life definitely weigh in a lot in what I do musically and what I do otherwise.”
But tagging Butler purely as the product of a fertile New Orleans music environment offers a narrow view of his musical history and ability. The realization that music was a calling dawned on him as a child studying at the Louisiana School for the Blind. That led to eventual tutelage under Crescent City pioneers Alvin Batiste. But his studies also would take him to Michigan State University in the 1970s. Decades later, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed his home and possessions, he moved to Colorado and then New York.
Then there is the music. His career has been loaded with collaborations, but the solo “Pianola Live” provides the most direct portrait of his stylistic dexterity. The recording has him performing songs penned or popularized by Otis Redding, Jerome Kern, Billy Preston and a pair of New Orleans legends — Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint — along with his original works.
“One my students, who is now a professor at UCLA, said, ‘You know, people shouldn’t call this music rhythm ’n’ blues. They should call it rhythm in blues,’” Butler says. “She’s right, because the people who were playing blues in the ’50s, ’60s and even in the mid- to late ’40s in New Orleans knew they were playing blues, but they didn’t know there was some outside thing called rhythm that you could put with it. Rhythm actually syncopates the blues. That’s what guys like Professor Longhair did very naturally.”
Blindness has hardly held Butler back in his artistic pursuits. At age 68, one of his great offstage passions is photography. His work and process has been featured in numerous exhibits and in the HBO documentary “Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers.”
“I create a perception in my work,” Butler says. “Of course, the perceptions can include the feeling and the sound, especially if you’re photographing people – the sound of their voice as a person. The energy of the person tells you what you might get from that person.”
There also have been struggles, including announcements this year that he has been diagnosed with colon cancer. But that didn’t keep him from returning to his hometown’s signature musical summit, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in May.
“I don’t make judgments on this stuff,” Butler says. “But more and more people are coming out to hear what I’m doing. It could be because I’m getting old. But I’m happy with the piano. I love the piano and love the fact the piano does what I want it to do and more.
“The piano depends on my personality and depends on my ability to command it. I’m happy with that.”
If you go
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 18
Where: Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville