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Henry Butler Brings New Orleans to NPR

Pianist Henry Butler started playing music as a child in the New Orleans housing projects. Blind since birth, he went on to study at the Louisiana State School for the Blind, learning classical piano scores in Braille.

At Southern University, he majored in voice and minored in piano. Classical, jazz and blues music all filter into his playing. Butler has a new album out called PiaNOLA Live. He recently spoke with Melissa Block and played the grand piano in NPR's Studio 4A.

Learning in Braille, Butler says, is an arduous task: The pianist must read and memorize a segment for each hand before putting it all together a few bars at a time.

In spite of the difficulty involved, Butler went to Southern University to study music, where he majored in voice. Piano, he says, was only a minor. "Which made things a lot easier," he says.

Much of Butler's music today, however, comes from the jazz-informed New Orleans piano tradition. He says he used to hear it played all the time as a child, even in the daytime, but that he didn't embrace it at first.

"I got to the point where I sort of put it in the 'tourist' music category," Butler says. "We saw it as 'tourist' music because in those days, we used to see a lot of people getting drunk. So we sort of associated this music with that kind of stuff. As I grew older, I realized it really wasn't the music that was the problem."

Butler eventually developed a liking for the music of Professor Longhair, one of the founders of the New Orleans piano idiom.

"Professor Longhair was a very interesting man," Butler says. "He certainly changed the way that people played rhythm and blues. He was the guy that brought the Caribbean rhythms into the music more than anybody else, probably."

Butler demonstrated what he called the bambula rhythm, noting that "it certainly makes New Orleans pianists more unique in the rhythmic part of the musical structure than, say, a lot of musical styles nationally."

Today, Butler incorporates all of his musical experiences into his performances. On his new recording of the classic Professor Longhair tune "Tipitina," he starts out with a lengthy improvisation, which he says draws on the Presbyterian hymn tradition. After a minute or so, he brings in the melody.

"And that's fun," he says. "It's a joy to kind of create on the spot like that."

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