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Butch Morris

AAJ Staff By

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The term conductor/composer does not begin to adequately describe Morris' role in most of the music he creates.
A solitary Butch Morris took the stage Saturday, July 5th at Tonic to perform a tribute to music aficionado Irving Stone at a memorial concert featuring some of the greatest players of New York's downtown music community. Taking a seat center stage, the bearded, bespectacled Morris reached into a shopping bag, appearing more like a philosophy professor searching for material to teach a class than a musician looking for the instruments on which he was going to perform. Dramatically he pulled out the old cornet few had seen him play in years and a tiny contraption most had never seen at all. After winding up the latter (the mechanical works of a music box), he set it before the microphone and the room was treated to the sweet, ethereal sound of his beautiful composition "Nowhere Ever After", a song that could easily be the soundtrack to a fairy tale. He then not so much played the cornet as used the horn to create complementary and contrasting music, sounding at different times like a pygmy choir, percussion ensemble, aquatic cantor and space cyborg. Following an appreciative audience's ovation Morris presented Stone’s widow Stephanie (who had specifically requested that Butch bring out his cornet) with the music box, displaying the generous spirit that has made him one of the New York avant-garde's most beloved figures.

Lawrence Douglas "Butch" Morris was born in Long Beach, California on February 10, 1947. Butch grew up in a musical family and his older brother, the late bassist Wilber Morris, fueled his interest in jazz at a young age. He began playing trumpet and studying composition, harmony and theory in public school, where saxophonist Charles Lloyd was one of his teachers. He also performed in the school marching band. After graduation he studied with a number of notable West Coast musicians and often sat in with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose and former Clifford Brown-Max Roach bassist George Morrow. Following a stint in the army, including a tour of duty as a medic in Vietnam, Morris returned home and became entrenched in the "New Jazz" movement, studying with Bobby Bradford and Horace Tapscott and performing in the latter's band with like-minded musicians including John Carter, Mark Dresser, Diamanda Galas, David Murray and James Newton. He found further inspiration when he moved to the Bay Area and became part of an exemplary jazz community that included Ray Anderson, Curtis Clark, Frank Lowe, Charles Tyler and, perhaps most importantly, former Ornette Coleman drummer Charles Moffett who Butch credits with piquing his early interest in the process he calls conduction.

Morris moved to New York in 1976, but spent much of the next half decade living and teaching in Paris and the south of France while teaching in Belgium and Holland. He returned to New York in 1981 and began performing regularly with his own ensembles and those of Billy Bang, Lowe and Murray. It was specifically in Murray's groups, particularly his Octet, that Butch's considerable talents as a composer and arranger began to receive widespread notice. When the tenor saxophonist expanded his group to a big band, the cornetist put aside his horn and began to devote himself almost exclusively to the task of conducting. It is in the role of conductor/ composer that Butch Morris is best known today. Since his tenure with Murray he has conducted many of his own ensembles as well as those of other leaders to critical acclaim all over the world, including legendary engagements at Sweet Basil, the Village Vanguard, the Knitting Factory and the Bowery Poetry Club, here in New York.

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