|BACK||MUSIC INTERVIEW: HENRY BUTLER|
Great discusses his music, “blind photography”, and teaching...
By: Melissa Berry
April 11, 2011
Chatting with the brilliant New Orleans musician and photographer is a gift. Blind since birth, Mr. Butler has always been passionate about the arts beginning with music as a child, and eventually also becoming a world-class photographer. His envisioning of the arts has nothing to do with the optical and everything to do with the universal. Through his performing and teaching, his enthusiasm is manifested in such a way that it provides the opportunity to see the world through his eyes, offering new interpretations of not setting limits, borders or boundaries for oneself or others.
Mr. Butler’s extensive formal education combined with his acquired life skills has given him a solid base from which to make his statement about what he refers to as the “national psyche.”
“Any nation that has withdrawn from the Arts has mysteriously disappeared.”
His gentle, “no nonsense” and practical way of stating this was compelling. Suddenly the concepts of creativity, inspiration and intuition, which are often just “buzz” words that are thrown about in discussing the arts, especially in education, had the unequivocal importance and power they deserve. His idea about “soul force” doesn’t have anything to do with any particular art form or culture; it has to do with one’s energy and the interpretation of that energy, and taking one’s energy levels which are initially intangible and making them tangible.
“Possiblities, it’s all about possibilities. I recognized this at a very early age and it’s been a motivating force throughout my life. My love of music has spanned across most of my life. I was born in New Orleans and started playing a neighbor's piano when I was six years old. My neighbor said I had "good ears," but I later learned I had perfect pitch when I started taking formal lessons at the Louisiana State School for the Blind. During high school, I played in a couple of R&B, blues and funk bands where I learned to arrange and orchestrate. Soon I started playing in nightclubs -- and earning quite a bit of money. Through those club gigs, I realized how much I thoroughly enjoyed being a musician.”
The conversation moved to back to the concept of "soul force" and being "mindful", which is another way of nicely saying, "just pay attention." It seems that Mr. Butler has been applying this throughout his life. Recognizing in college that pursuing an advanced degree in Music as a pianist just wasn't possible; the extremely complicated piano music required, and the task of trying to learn it all by braille was daunting. "Soul force" and being "mindful" came into play. The musical desire and energy were there; it just needed to be slightly redirected to create a soulution to what had been a dilemma - a situation seemingly incapable of a solution. Mr. Butler earned his Master's in vocal music, a before untapped source of energy. Double “soul force”.
Mr. Butler incorporated his diversity into his teaching and performing. "Part of my mission in this life had to be sharing my knowledge with others. I've taught music workshops throughout the country and initiated a number of different educational initiatives, includng a residential jazz camp at Missouri State School for het Blind and a program for blind and visually impaired students at the University of New Orleans. Over the past decade, I've initiated several workshops and residencies on blues, jazz and other forms of folk music. It's a joy to see people respond so enthusiastically while they become more aware of American culture and their roots. Performing jazz and blues allows me to express important things which are often nonverbal and I often use my entire body as my instrument. I aslo respond to each individual audience's "vibe" -- whether teaching or playing music, my listeners/students have as much impact on me as I hope I have on them. Through teaching I truly get to see -- if only symbolically -- how peoples' eyes can open when something I've said reaches them and the light goes on."
Mr. Butler has applied this way of thinking not only to his personal music and teaching, but has gone on to include it in his photography. Starting in 1984, Henry decided to take some pictures, so he got himself an instamatic and started taking pictures. Oh, that's right, he's blind. Just creates different possibilities, that's all.
“After going to exhibits, hearing people describe photos and paintings, I felt kind of empty—- I wasn’t getting all that I could get. The best thing, I decided, was to try to become at least an artist who was doing something in one of the visual arts. I started because I wanted to become a participant in the visual arts field, and affect the consciousness of sighted people. I was already a musician, playing with jazz greats like Charlie Haden in clubs like the Comeback Inn in LA. I knew that people who hear the same composition, they’re going to hear differently than the composer. I think shooting color versus black and white is similar to writing a musical composition in a major or minor key. No two people will see things in the exact same way. When I take a photograph, it’s a great learning process for me. Each person that describes it or looks at it has a totally different way of seeing it. People see colors differently; they see different things in the same picture. They interpret what they’re seeing based on their own intellect. My photography audience is sighted people. I’ve gotten to know what they look at and look for. What can I learn by showing my images to sighted people? It’s an overall effort to serve, regardless of what I do: Shoot pool; Throw darts. And I’ve tried both. All the photographer can do is capture what he or she perceives. It’s all about trying to find more profound ways of growing.”
Currently, Mr. Butler and other blind photographers are captured in the recent HBO documentary “Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers”.
Mr. Butler is truly a protector of our “nation’s psyche” with his very personal and diverse artistic umbrella which shields and perpetuates the importance of the arts for everyone. His insights and productivity are examples for all of us. Blending together a rich amalgam of classical, blues, Caribbean, roots, pop, blues and jazz influences, which he offers to us and to his students, is excitingly eclectic and sometimes as mysterious and enigmatic as his photographs.
“Rhythm”, he explained to me, “A big part of it is recognizing the rhythm, and New Orleans is the most syncopated city in the world.”
I’ve now come believe that syncopation should rule the nation.
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