Butch Morris, musical artist and friend, mourned widely

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Butch Morris approved of this poster

Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris, one of the most brilliant and musically generous of artists who emerged from New York’s East Village in the 1980s as an experimental cornetist, composer of melodies and settings, and instigator of the burgeoning act of Conduction (a term he copyrighted), died January 29 of cancer at age 65, and the world mourns.

Besides my “appreciation” for National Public Radio, heartfelt writings have been posted in the New Yorker blog by cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, in the Wall Street Journal blog by Vipal Monga (who directed the film on Butch’s Herculean 44 NYC performances  in 28 days, Black February: Music is an Open Door), and many others, listed below. WKCR, Columbia U’s radio station, is running a memorial broadcast as I write. Ben Ratliff’s obituary in the New York Times was highly respectful and comprehensive, too.

But the feeling is we’ve all just scratched the surface, because Butch was an elegant and radiant man, who made everyone he met feel special to be in his presence — the very essence of “personable”. And he was equally an original, insightful, incisive, determined and significant creator of beauty, who never stopped being curious about the nature of sound and the potentials of people expressing themselves interactively, in words, dance, theater, visual arts, conversational as well as music.

For 20 years I lived down the block from Butch, who had an apartment across the street from the building where John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Anthony Coleman and a gang of other down-to-earth yet fearless, inspired genre-challengers resided or passed through. It was always cool fun to meet Butch in the street, or hang out with him over a drink, coffee or just on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. When my then-wife composer-vocalist Kitty Brazelton was invited for a weeklong retreat at the creative colony of Omi in upstate NY, I went along with our young daughter Rosie, and Butch was there (also pianist Marie McAuliffe, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter). Those days and nights were a blast. Butch was the one with the presence of mind to quickly and efficiently scoop a fallen bat out of the swimming pool then dispose of it while our hostess and everyone else foolishly skittered around.

Wayne and Bill Horvitz, Shelly Hirsch, J.A. Deane, Tom Cora, Myra Melford, Alva Rogers, Jim Staley, Jason Hwang, Christian Marclay — throughout the ’80s and subsequently Butch was involved with all of them and many others in collaborations. His longest-lasting musical relationship, though, was with his great friend David Murray. Last April the two of them showed up together at Ornette Coleman’s birthday party, and enlivened the end of that evening. Butch had roomed with David in an apartment above the Tin Palace on the Bowery when they’d first come to NYC from California. They’d met in the early ’70s, in the rehearsal band drummer Charles Moffett ran in Oakland. Butch credited Moffett with introducing him to the use of hand signals for conduction (I never heard him put any musicians down, and he had an enormous range of references, but I’ll mention his particular interests in Gil Evans, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Michael Tilson Thomas). Butch and David wrote tunes together, which were played by David’s quartets, quintets, octets and big band (which Butch conducted), often at the Greenwich Village club Sweet Basil. Their heroic coterie included Henry Threadgill — another of Butch’s very closest pals — Oliver Lake, Craig Harris, Julius Hemphill, Olu Dara, Ted Daniels, Vincent Chancey, Steve Coleman, Fred Hopkins, Diedre Murray, Franke Lowe, Steve McCall, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Don Pullen, Rod Williams, Curtis Clark, Billy Bang, Graham Haynes and Butch’s older brother Wilber, among many others. My friend Lona Foote took photos obsessively of those groups, often focusing on Butch. She died in 1993, but her photos retain some of the luminosity of those days. I need to have more of them scanned and eventually posted. Enid Farber and Barrie Karp have put together portfolios of images of Butch, too — Barrie shared hers with Butch while putting them together in the past few months.

He was immensely photogenic, even when illness afflicted him last  autumn. Prior to that, Butch was always jetting off to residencies in Italy, Istanbul, Japan, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, etc. where he would teach his practice of hand-signals for spontaneous composition and lead ensembles in concerts, many of them recorded and issued by small and independent labels (his first 50 Conductions, performed from 1985 through 1995, are in Testament: A Conduction Collection, a 10 cd-boxed set from New World Records). I was at the Kitchen on February 1, 1985 for the performance of the gnarly Conduction #1,  Current Trends in Racism in Modern America (a work in progress)I wrote liner notes for one of its reissued editions, but I don’t think Butch was satisfied with them. Why should he have been? He had much more encompassing perspective on both conduction and topic than I did.

I was smart enough to get to his performances including the mixed-media extravaganza “Goya” during which painters worked, actors in Inquisition-era costumes roamed about a large hall and Butch led players who had gathered in what seemed to be a chapel; to his concert launching the performance series curated by his friend (and mine) Jeanette Vuocolo at the Whitney Phillip Morris on 42nd St. across from Grand Central Terminal; to his all-flutes-plus Arthur Blythe Conduction in the community gardens of the East Village and on the bandstand during a Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, and to the particularly exotic Conductions 25 and 26, Akbank where ney virtuoso Suleyman Ereguner’s ensemble of Sufi musicians joined percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, vibraphonist Bryan Carrott, trombonist/electronics manipulator Deane, harpist Elizabeth Panzer, pianist Steve Coleman, pocket trumpeter Hugh Ragin and guitarist Brandon Ross (another Butch regular) under his baton. I’ll never forget the climax of that one. It seemed like they’d conjured up the Grand Bazaar, then uprooted it and swirled it into space.

It was my professional pleasure to write about Butch for the Village Voice and DownBeat, The Wire and Swing Journal — pieces I cobbled together for a chapter in my book Future Jazz —  and to interview him for NPR about Billy Bang’s Viet Nam: The Aftermath, for which he conducted a band of brothers who’d all served in that atrocious war, as Butch had. Of course I never felt I captured or related the entirety of what Butch had to say. No article was so capacious, no radio piece long enough to include all the insight, wit and sensitivity he brought to a topic. And though I can write of my deep affection for this man, a warmth and admiration which I know is shared by a vast and far-flung community of people who knew him personally and also includes many who didn’t but caught a glimmer of his aura in his sounds, I yet cannot come close to giving words to all the dimensions of him and his life. As Vipal Monga has written, we were lucky to know him. We who knew him even a little will not forget him. We will listen to his music, yes, but we will think of his conversation, his stance, his clothes, his voice, the way his cigarette smoke curled up, his easy repartee with restauranteurs, wait-staff and bodega owners, his other friends, his ex-s, his son, his laugh, his scowl, his deftness, his brightness and we’ll want to be with him again.

Butch memorials, etc.

NuBlu, at 62 Avenue C, where Butch conducted a loose band of funakteers, have dedicated Sundays in Feburary to Butch and in honor of his 28-year performance project Black February.

PressJazzTimes, Doug Ramsey’s Rifftides, Peter Cherches’ blog, NPR’s A Blog Supreme, thee Chicago Reader

Video, sent by Wayne Horvitz: Betting with Butch.

Radio: Friday, Feb 1, starting at 12 am (midnight Thursday), WPFW radio, at 89.3FM and www.wpfw.org, two-hour broadcast “His Friends Called Him Butch,” including excerpts of a conversation held in his NY apartment in 1989, and George Mason University professor Dr. Thomas Stanley, who did his dissertation on Butch Morris and his conduction process, sharing his thoughts. Alsowww.battiti.rai.ithttp://www.rai.tv/dl/RaiTV/popup/player_radio.html?v=03&plr=w, –National Italian Radio program  directed by Pino Saulo, included Butch playing cornet, Wayne Hortvitz and J.A. Deane in “spiriti materani” (1990), a commissioned work inspired by the small city of Matera, internationally renowned for its “Sassi” (stones), from a prehistoric settlement suspected to be among the first by humans Italy.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Howie,

    I came to know Butch as an artist through his performances from the 80’s onward, including his various interactions with the choreographers of the time. i later came to know him as a friend through our service together on the National (Artist) Council of Florida’s Atlantic Center for the Arts (New Smyrbna Beach), an extraordinary artist and teaching community. A wildly talented, personally and artistically generous, definitely joyful man . . . Surreal, watching this and other passings from the ACA fellowship in (Note: I work for a living as Artistic and Executive Director of The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard while chairing the ACA Nat’l Council), including Leroy Jenkins and Sekou Sundiata.

  2. says

    Howie,

    I came to know Butch as an artist through his performances from the 80’s onward, including his various interactions with the choreographers of the time. i later came to know him as a friend through our service together on the National (Artist) Council of Florida’s Atlantic Center for the Arts (New Smyrna Beach), an extraordinary artist and teaching community. A wildly talented, personally and artistically generous, definitely joyful man . . . Surreal, watching this and other passings from the ACA fellowship in (Note: I work for a living as Artistic and Executive Director of The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard while chairing the ACA Nat’l Council), including Leroy Jenkins and Sekou Sundiata.

  3. Allan Graubard says

    Howard — lovely, heart-felt words for our friend and colleague. His loss has hit all of us who knew him and worked with him in ways which each of us will honor as we can. More recently, several of us were working closely with Butch on finalizing his “Conduction Workbook,” which in time will become part of his legacy to music and musicians and creators of all sorts. I laughed, too, when you mentioned writing liner notes for Conduction #1. I wrote notes as well and then the project seemed to vanish. There were to be three texts as I understood it: yours, Greg tate’s and mine. I hope this release is revived, just as I hope that Butch’s other music, which he wished to release, knowing his time was short, will be released, including the music that the poster you have mounted here refers to: selections from “Modette” and other songs. He leaves a big empty space for us to nourish with the same kind of love, attention, intensity and compassion that he gave to music and his many, many friends.

    I am a better man for having known Butch Morris.
    Allan

    • says

      Me too, Allan, me too.
      I thought that edition of Current Trends with texts by Greg, you and me WAS released, and that I have it — but I see the CD I’ve got at hand (Sound Aspects 4010) has only Butch’s own brief liners. I had him autograph it for me. I’ll have to look further.

      • Allan Graubard says

        …was it released? He told me it wasn’t. Perhaps it was and Butch didn’t use what we gave him. Do let me know as I’d like the best balanced version of the recording, not the work print CD Butch gave me… We’ll have to have a few about this one and laugh and cry at the same time…

        • says

          Amazon lists only one edition, obviously the Sound Aspects, but says release date is 1986. I think that refers to the vinyl, because the cd I have credits J Wohlieben with digital mastering for cd in August ’90. I do seem to recall receiving an updated revision — I have to look further to be sure. Meanwhile, I’ve posted my liner notes for the 25th anniversary re-release. I think we’ll be together soon to hoist a few for our buddy. . .

  4. Nancy says

    Butch also wrote the musical score for two films: Hidden Love and L’Amour Cache, both starring Isabelle Huppert. He was an uncommon man, deep and true.

  5. says

    I met Butch Morris when he first came to New York. He was a kind, gentle, elegant man
    and of course extremely talented. Guess you could say “God was in the House” when
    in his presence.