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.
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. Also: www.battiti.rai.it, http://www.rai.tv/dl/RaiTV/