Butch Morris, jazz conductor

(slightly corrected version)

Conductor of improvisation Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris is an East Village charmer, now-too-infrequent cornetist and internationally-known instigator of large ensemble music made spontaneously in real time by free-from-convention individuals. During a radio interview for the NPR show News & Notes, Butch identifies himself as a jazz musician not by superficial “style” but by inherent lineage, values, procedures and preferences.

At the recent Portland Jazz Festival panel on “the shape of jazz to come,”Tim Berne and Cuong Vu — both estimable musicians — rejected the term “jazz” as a restrictive label that turns off young audiences. They would prefer to have their music go without a name, except maybe “Tim Berne music” and “Cuong Vu music.” For more than 50 years, other modernist improvisers have made similar objections to the “jazz” word. But other musicians, including Butch Morris, matter of factly claim “jazz” as representing an art form that focuses on change — including experimentation, exploration and expansion — while honoring continuity.

“I’m a jazz musician — I know what I am,” Morris tells program host Farai Chideya in the NPR show. “Whether the music you think I’m playing or professing is jazz or not is kinda not my problem. I’m a jazz musician and this is what I do. I do conduction. It doesn’t matter whether I do it with classical musicans or jazz musicians or traditional Japanese instruments, Korean instruments, Turkish instruments, it doesn’t matter. This is what I do. Work with funk musicians, pop musicians, it doesn’t matter. I’m still showing everybody same sign.” Those “signs” — hand signals — convey instructions to repeat, hold, return, etc., but not specific pitches or beats; those are chosen by the players themselves.

Butch Morris got his initial inspiration to develop large group improvisation in big band rehearsals led in Oakland by the late great drummer Charles Moffett. He came East from California in the late ’70s with his friend saxophonist David Murray, with whom he wrote songs for Murray’s mid ’80s breakthrough Octet. He conducted Murray’s big band — but made his first major recorded statement with the very serious, anti-genre album Current Trends In Racism In Modern America, which featured an ensemble (including John Zorn) that he conducted in concert at the old Broome Street location of the Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance and Video. He’s worked with ensembles around the world, written up his thesis, racked up 5-star reviews for his recordings, and next is leading the unclassifiable but ultra hip NuBlu Orchestra at NuBlu bar/lounge, 62 Ave. C in Manhattan, March 5 – 8.

Another of Butch Morris’s radical ideas: he thinks institutions dealing with black studies and black American music should “get hip to everything that’s not on the radio, rather than what is on the radio.” You mean there’s music that’s not on the radio? And not on itunes either???

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  1. charles says

    Isn’t interesting that Berne’s and Vu’s music sounds more like “jazz” than Morris’s…they do to me anyway. Isn’t it also interesting that ethnicity is somewhat absent in this post…until the last paragraph anyway.
    I am really inspired by Morris’s perceived connection to the tradition of jazz…and his pride in that tradition…and his willingness to continue to push and innovate from within that tradition, something which has always been a part of jazz until…until… certain forces prevailed. I think Morris’s identity as an African American musician is connected to that heritage called jazz. I am likewise disappointed that Berne and Vu distance themselves from that tradition. Perhaps they don’t feel that sense of belonging that Morris feels. Is it that they don’t want to be a part of that heritage or is it that they don’t feel that they are accepted by it? Is the rejection of jazz Berne’s and Vu’s reaction to those certain conservative forces?
    Ultimately Berne and Vu are, whether they admit it or not, a part of a historical tradition. What they do is indebted to things done in the name of jazz, so to speak.
    This raises a somewhat related issue to your post on John Zorn and critics…couldn’t (shouldn’t) critics illustrate these historical connections…despite what musicians say? Might critics be in an even better position to talk about the music than the musicians themselves?