Evelyn Butler wasn't intimidating like we know some teachers can be. MS:
She was the opposite of intimidating. She was a big presence, with bright red hair and already quite old. She had a big laugh, wore a lot of makeup, and might be seen wearing a purple moo moo and green satin slippers and rhinestone studded glasses. She drove way too fast. She was constantly arrested for driving too fast! [Laughter.] She was a crazy lady, and everybody loved her because she was just such a flash of color in this little town. She was like an alien coming into Windom and giving so much life to it. She was amazing, really a blessing to all of us. All this despite the hell she'd been through in her personal life. AAJ:
She sounds like a wonderful person. So then at what point did you start seriously getting interested in jazz? MS:
That came much later. But early on she taught me to start playing stride. We would take standard tunes and dress them up with little stride arrangements. I loved it. And she gave equal attention to that as to Mozart. Every Christmas, my mom would give me a book of Cole Porter
or Rogers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin
, and so on. So I loved standards, and I always lamented that I was born too late. I'd wish I was born when Mrs. Butler was born, when that music was alive. Because in the 1970s, what we were hearing on the radio in Windom, like "Havin' My Baby" or "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," it wasn't quite the same to say the least! Acquiring Jazz and Composing Skills: Minnesota, Miami, and Eastman MS:
So at that time, I didn't realize anything about the evolution of jazz. I knew nothing about small group jazz, nothing about the evolution of jazz until I went to college at the University of Minnesota. Then I started listening to public radio, and some jazz records. I had an old Ellington album from the 1930s. I thought that music was long since dead, but then this guy heard me playing it, and he invited me to come listen to all his jazz records in his room, and gave me a few to borrow. There was Herbie Hancock
's Head Hunters
(Columbia, 1973), and then there was a McCoy Tyner
with John Coltrane
. My mind was boggled by the harmony McCoy Tyner played, the left hand, the quartal voicings, the slippery harmony that was completely different from stride. And I started hearing pianist Bill Evans
on the radio. And then I went to the record store and started buying things voraciously. And it was then that I discovered Gil Evansbecause it was next to Bill Evans in the record store! AAJ:
You serendipitously came across Gil Evans' records, a chance occurrence that would later affect your whole life, as when you worked closely with him, and he had such a major impact on you. MS:
It did, but at the University of Minnesota, there was no jazz program. I started there as a music theory major. Then I added composition, a discipline which during that time in the early 1980s was totally into atonality and serial music, which wasn't so much my cup of tea as a means of musical expression. I enjoyed doing it in theory class, but it didn't speak to me in terms of my own personal expression.
My composition teacher, Paul Fetler, was a student of Hindemith. Fetler was a great teacher. Two of the best classes I ever took were at Minnesota. His was advanced counterpoint, where we spent a whole semester studying every piece from Bach's "Art of the Fugue." We had to write a fugue every week, utilizing the technique Bach exploited in each subsequent fugue we studied. It was very difficult. And I also had an incredible orchestration class with Dominick Argento, who was a quite famous classical composer. I regret that I didn't also get to study composition with him at some point as well.
Anyway, Paul Fetler realized how much my music was influenced by jazz, and he suggested I write for the big band at the school. So I started watching them rehearse, and that's when I got the bug! I started writing for them. I took lessons with a fellow student, Bob Parsons, who was writing for the band. And then I started taking piano lessons in the community with Manfredo Fest
, the great Brazilian pianist. And I had another teacher, Lance Strickland
. And I bought books and studied on my own. I got a book by Rayburn Wright, who taught at Eastman. I studied a book by George Russell
about the Lydian Chromatic Concept. I would say that, although I took some lessons, I was largely self- taught. I studied scores, and I watched the band rehearse. To this day, I think that's the best way to learn, because if you have somebody spoon-feed you"here's step one, step two"you're never going to discover what your own unorthodox path would be. It's much better to do it yourself and find your own way, stumbling a bit on the way. That's how you find a voice that's unique.