A Special Visit From Jazz Pianist and Singer Henry Butler!

Renowned New Orleans jazz artist and composer Henry Butler recently visited The Chicago Lighthouse prior to his performance at the Chicago Jazz Fest. I sat down with him to talk about his childhood, challenges and obstacles he has faced, and what has helped him succeed as a blind musician.

Blind since his infancy, Henry began his academic studies at the Louisiana School for the Blind. Although he played piano since he was six years old, he started taking lessons when he was eight much to his disappointment.

“I was actually volunteered to take lessons,” Henry recalls. Now he realizes that although he wanted to learn how to play the piano, he did not want to take classes in addition to his school and homework.

By the time he was in 5th grade, Henry could tell what notes were being played simply by listening to rehearsals from the school’s band. After receiving a crash course from the band’s teacher, Henry began learning how to compose music. Still, he desired to find a way to be heard, and being involved in the band and playing the piano was the perfect opportunity.

After graduating from the Louisiana School for the Blind, Henry went on to study at Southern University in Baton Rouge and Michigan State University. He was mentored by celebrities like George Duke, Sir Roland Hanna and Alvin Batiste, among others.

Although Henry began his career as a classical music pianist, he soon realized that reading Braille music and playing at the same time created certain challenges. One of these being the amount of space each composition occupied. Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, for example, is written in four volumes. Also, since he had to read with his hands, he’d have to first read the lines and then take them off the score to play what he had just read. The best solution was to listen and memorize parts of the composition before playing them. Still, he realized that if he wanted to be successful in his career, then he had to keep reading and writing Braille music.

Henry still reads music and writes his countless and successful compositions in Braille. He fully embraces the use of technology which has helped him tremendously to write music. One of the programs he finds particularly helpful is Dancing Dots, a computer software program that helps blind and visually impaired musicians. Users can scan a piece of music, and the program will play it back so they can hear how it sounds.

Today, Henry Butler is considered “the premier exponent of great New Orleans jazz and blues piano tradition.” This did not come easily to Henry, as he faced and overcame many challenges as a child. His parents divorced when he was only five years old, and he and his mother and siblings had to move to the Calliope Projects in New Orleans as a result.

“I’m from a very humble beginning and am still at a place where I’m still at a humble beginning,” he says.

The fact that he encountered a lot of segregation while growing up also motivated Henry to pursue his dreams. He says that in a way he’s thankful that people did not hide their feelings toward him because this motivated him to become a stronger person. He also encourages people regardless of disability or challenges they might be facing to work toward achieving their goals and dreams. This is his advice for people who are blind or have other disabilities:

You need to be twice as good as everybody else to get a decent job. Even if you’re three times as good as sighted people, you may not get complimentary or an equivalent job, but at least you’ll get something if you want it.

To learn more about Henry Butler, you can read his biography here. A special shout out goes to Henry Butler for taking the time to speak with us at The Chicago Lighthouse and CRIS Radio!

4 thoughts on “A Special Visit From Jazz Pianist and Singer Henry Butler!”

bethfinke said on September 24, 2015 at 5:56 pm

Great post, so well-written. And hwat a luck woman you are to have met Henry Butler. I have been a fan ever since the 20th century when I first heard him at a small bar in Champaign, Ill. called, of all things, the “Blind Pig.”

Sandy's View said on September 24, 2015 at 7:31 pm

Thanks Beth! Henry is definitely a great guy with an even better personality! The Blind Pig? How ironic! I just had to chuckle when I read that… I love it!

bethfinke said on September 24, 2015 at 6:07 pm

And hey, did you hear Henry Butler play at Millennium Park for Jazz Fest, too? He mentioned that earlier that day he had the “privilege” to meet with people who are blind –he meant you, Sandy! He also mentioned the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and how much it changed his life for the better. The crowd cheered.
And by the way, the performance was fantastic. One of the best things I’ve ever heard at Millenium Park, and I go there a lot.
I think you know the city of Chicago is doing a lot with the arts to celebrate the 25th anniversary – The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust is offering free touch tours, and Saturday a sighted friend came along for the one at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and studio in Oak Park. Linda wrote a terrific guest post about the tour on my Safe & Sound blog:
In the post, Linda mentioned some similes the tour guide used. One of the comments that came back was:
I am curious about the effectiveness of similes for those who were born blind. Any ideas?

In my response, I did admit wondering about an asterisk simile mentioned in my friend’s guest post — I assumed people born blind would probably only know it as a symbol you use to refer to a footnote. Would they know what an asterisk *looks* like? The There was also a simile reference to a “barrel” in the tour, and I figured that would work for someone born blind. , “I think, because many adults have run across a barrel in their lives or have read books with barrels mentioned in them (and in the best of worlds, an itinerant vision teacher at school would know to call out that barrel reference and work with the child who is blind to explain it).
After leaving my response to the comment I googled things like “using
similes when teaching children who are blind” and some such, but the only things that came up were metaphors with the word “blind” in them, like blind as a bat.
I told the person who commented that I’d send this question on to you. I know you weren’t born blind, but I still think you might be able to answer her question better than I could.
I left the url for your blog there, too, in hopes it helps garner more readers for Sandy’s View. I would be oh so grateful if you went to that post (it’s called Touching moments in architecture”) and left a comment there, or, perhaps, take this subject on as fodder for a future blog post of your own. Like I say, in my search it hadn’t been covered by anyone else!

Sandy's View said on September 24, 2015 at 7:38 pm

I couldn’t go, but a few of my friends/colleagues told me the same!! The Chicago Architecture Foundation is also doing accessible tours, and I was one of the first people to “try it out.” They had one a couple of weeks ago, but they’ll have another one on October 10 and November 7. You can read more about my experience with that on the post called “A Chicago Tour You Must Hear.” Thanks for the idea, I’ll definitely have to write a post about similes and metaphors and how we understand and “view” them!

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