In 'Yowzie,' choreographer Twyla Tharp and New Orleans-born pianist Henry Butler combine for
Matthew Dibble, left, and Rika Okamoto in Yowzie costumes: The Twyla Tharp 50th Anniversary Tour dances into the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts on Oct. 24, opening the New Orleans Ballet Association's 2015-16 season. (Photo by Ruven Alfanador)
When Twyla Tharp brings her newest dance troupe to New Orleans Saturday night (Oct. 24) to help celebrate the choreographer's 50th anniversary as a creative phenomenon, the occasion will acknowledge an additional, powerful connection between the city and the music it calls its own:Henry Butler.
Butler – blinded by glaucoma as a child, a lauded pianist, composer, and above all, passionate advocate for traditional New Orleans jazz – is a principal force behind the second half of Tharp's program at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. He's the anchoring keyboard presence throughout "Yowzie," a heady dance amalgam of music by Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and similar bigger-than-big personalities.
Jazz fans may recognize "Yowzie" from its origins as "Viper's Drag," a recording released last year on the Impulse! label. The performances featured Butler and the Hot 9, an instrumental cohort led by trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein. In a happy confluence of art, commerce and optimism, a financial backer of the recording shopped the music to various third parties. One of those was Tharp.
News that she was going to employ "Viper's Drag" as the basis of a new work arrived at an especially telling juncture for Butler. In March, doctors had discovered a malignant mass on his colon, big enough to suspect Stage Three or Four cancer.
"They were telling me every day about the chemotherapy possibilities, and the radiation, how they were going to have to install a port in me, and how I'd have to come every couple of weeks to get the stuff going," Butler, 66, recalled in a recent phone interview from Oakland, Calif. "I was afraid, man. I didn't know what my quality of life was going to be like, and all that."
As circumstances turned out, the tumor was less aggressive than feared. Surgery alone proved sufficient. A few months later Butler was back gigging around country as usual, dividing his down time between an apartment in Brooklyn and a house in Denver, where he retreats to every six or eight weeks. The neighbors there, he said, don't mind if he practices on the piano early in the morning, or late into the night.
Once Tharp had his music, and the legal details of fees and performance rights were decided, Butler was content to let Twyla be Twyla. This wasn't the first time she'd choreographed a work to piano-based jazz – indeed, one of earliest pieces, the 1971 romp "Eight Jelly Rolls" – acknowledged the same genre as "Yowzie" would more than four decades later.
Bernstein, who'd initially worked with Butler in the mid-1980s, regards the New Orleans-born pianist as an ongoing astonishment. Chatting by phone recently from his home in the New York City suburbs, Bernstein recalled first encountering Butler at the piano.
"I'd never heard anything like Henry," he said, adding that Butler "was literally playing songs that sounded like they were from the beginning of the American musical tradition. There was something unique, in that he was combining this large-scale vision of what music is. And the larger your vision, the harder it is to get it into focus."