The Death of Butch Morris and His Improvised LIfe

A piece I wrote for WSJ.com in honor of Butch.

YouTube
Lawrence D. Butch Morris in “Black February.”

The death of avant-garde composer and musical pioneer Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris on Tuesday, Jan. 29, has unleashed a flurry of memorials to his life and technique. Butch will rightfully be remembered most for his development of “Conduction,” his trademarked technique of improvisation, which he developed as a musical sign language and used as a tool for live composition with large ensembles.  But what shouldn’t get lost in the eulogies that have begun flooding the Internet is the fact that Conduction, beyond an innovative system of music-making, was in Butch’s hands a deeply demanding and personal method of self exploration.

It wasn’t just about the music, but also about the people who were making the music.

I spent several years making Black February, a documentary about Butch. He’d asked if I was interested in recording a series of concerts he was performing in New York in February 2005. He planned on playing every night of that month, often several times a night with different ensembles at various locations throughout the city, as a sort of marathon celebration and showcase of Conduction.

“Black February,” as he called it, marked 20 years of the technique he had developed partly through his work with such jazz luminaries as Gil Evans, Alice Coltrane, and Henry Threadgill and brought to fruition with saxophonist David Murray’s big band.

By the time those 28 days were done, Butch had performed 44 shows in nine venues with almost 100 musicians in the city, playing everything from funk, big band jazz, choral theater, electronic music and beyond. It was a muscular gesture, a bold statement meant to show off the potential he’d seen in his technique when he debuted Conduction No. 1 in New York with an ensemble that featured, among others, saxophonist John Zorn, multimedia artist Christian Marclay and guitarist Brandon Ross.

During the interviews for the film, he told me, “What I’m asking for is a human feeling, and in many cases, that’s a difficult thing to ask for.” He explained that the act of asking for a sincere sound from a musician and not being satisfied with some tired vamp amounted to an act of personal confrontation. “Because I’m asking you to give me musically or sonically something that’s actually very close to you…It’s more personal than we think. And then when you get down to this encounter, then you find out how personal it is.”

That encounter, both between Butch and the musicians, and the musicians with themselves, was at the heart of his technique and moved Conduction for me into some realm beyond music into a zone somewhere between psychology, philosophy and spirituality.

In a fundamental way, that sense of going beyond music and into deeper personal realms was simply a reflection of Butch’s own personality. Despite his reputation as a demanding band leader, he was also known as a gregarious East Village presence and generous friend, much beloved by musicians and non-musicians alike.

The purity in his nature that people naturally reacted to was best epitomized for me this fall, when on a walk through the East Village he was accosted by a child from the neighborhood.

“Butch! Your majesty!” she called out.

There’s no more fitting title for the artist we lost.

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