Acclaimed keyboardist Henry Butler had a great house in New Orleans. Located in the Gentilly neighborhood, it was big -- 4,100 square feet -- with a studio and plenty of room for his collection of musical instruments, including a 1925-vintage Mason & Hamlin piano that was among his most beloved possessions. "My apartment in Boulder was a campground compared to that," he says.
He's exaggerating, but not by much. Last fall he moved into a Boulder property, and even though its size was modest, the place was fairly nice overall. Before long, he felt comfortable there, and he would have stayed longer if his landlords hadn't decided to tear down the structure in order to build luxury condominiums. He was given until mid-November to move out, and heading home wasn't an option. After all, the Gentilly dwelling had been devastated by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which smashed into the Louisiana coastline on August 29 of last year.
When Butler, 57, returned to his house for the first time in early December, he couldn't physically see the destruction; he's blind. But it didn't require standard vision to comprehend what seven to nine feet of water did to his belongings. Virtually everything he hadn't been able to take with him in advance of the storm was ruined, including one-of-a-kind Braille scores he'd created for each of his albums, more than $20,000 worth of stage clothing and, yes, the piano. He was contemplating his loss toward day's end when he heard the sound of tiny creatures scurrying through the structure and realized that, in his words, "it wasn't mine anymore."
Butler isn't one to shrink from a challenge. Despite his lack of sight, he decided to take up photography circa the 1980s, and with the help of assistants who frame images to his specifications, he's become an accomplished shutterbug. While several of what he calls "my analog cameras" didn't survive the hurricane, he still had a digital one -- but as he stood among the wreckage, he couldn't bring himself to shoot what remained of his house. "I wasn't ready for that," he says. So he had others document the damage for insurance purposes, little knowing that he would still be fighting over claims more than a year later.
Fortunately, nothing can spoil older memories of the city and state he loves. A New Orleans native, he was sent to the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired in Baton Rouge at age five. He subsequently enrolled at Southern University, and after graduating as a music major, he landed a job as an instructor at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. "I loved teaching," he recalls. "But after about three years, I decided that I couldn't live in poverty." His alternative was to work as a musician -- a profession that includes plenty of poor people, too. Even so, he recalls, "I almost immediately increased my income by about three times what I was getting in the school system."
No wonder. Butler is a rare talent whose playing bridges the gulf between the rollicking New Orleans style and improvisational jazz without sacrificing his own individuality. "I'm not going to get on stage and present Keith Jarrett or Professor Longhair," he notes. "You will hear the flavors of both, and of all kinds of people, at different points in time. But it's got to come through me. I'm the filter."
Beginning with 1985's Fivin' Around, Butler released eight critically admired solo recordings and teamed with Denver-bred bluesman Corey Harris on 2000's impressive Vu-Du Menz CD. During this span, he gained a reputation as one of New Orleans's finest musical ambassadors, as well as a players' player. (His website, HenryButler.com, features photos that capture him alongside Keith Richards, B.B. King and U2's the Edge.) Yet he continued to reach out to young blind musicians via Creative Music and Jazz Camp, which he put together at the University of New Orleans. Too bad Katrina threw the camp into limbo. It's currently looking for a permanent base, much as Butler himself has been doing recently.
Initially, Butler planned to ride out the hurricane, but he changed his mind after friends who wanted him to evacuate said that if he refused to leave, they wouldn't go, either. Together they caravaned to northern Louisiana, and within 24 hours, he says, "we knew there was no point in going back." Besides, he was scheduled for a tour that included two stops in Colorado: one in Castle Rock, where he performed at a wedding, and another in Telluride. As the scope of the disaster in New Orleans became known, Butler contributed to Sing Me Back Home, a benefit disc co-starring the Neville Brothers and Dr. John, and added fundraisers to a slate that took him from coast to coast. The travel was fine by him because, he says, "I didn't have a home."
His situation improved dramatically thanks to several Boulderites, including Motet percussionist Scott Messersmith, who reached out to displaced New Orleans musicians. In late October, Butler checked in at the Boulder Outlook Hotel, which allowed him to stay without charge for nearly two weeks while he looked for an apartment. Finding one was a tremendous relief.
"I needed a place when I wasn't working to self-reflect, to meditate and to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder," he says. "Like most people, I had it -- I had it pretty seriously. And if I was going to do some crying, I wanted to do it in a place where nobody could see it."
His ordeal didn't end once the apartment was his, however. Unlike many Katrina victims, he had flood insurance, but it had a $100,000 cap that didn't begin to cover what he'd lost. He had other insurance as well, but that company didn't rush to make him whole. He's presently suing the firm and hopes for a settlement in another year or two. And then there's the matter of his mortgage. No bills related to his house reached him for two months after Katrina, and by the time he called the bank to inquire about their absence, he'd already been reported as delinquent. It was his responsibility to mail his payments whether a bill arrived or not, a rep told him, since the bank only sends them out as a "courtesy." Butler made good on the debt, but his credit rating took a mighty blow from which it has not yet recovered.
To Butler, these problems can be traced directly to Katrina, and the fact that he and others are dealing with them so long after the skies cleared strikes him as an indictment of the entire system. "By the time the masses realize what's happened to them, it's going to be late in the game," he allows. "It's time to stand up, to rebel, to not only make a statement, but to take action."
With so much left unresolved, Butler is eager to put down more permanent roots. His eviction date was upon him when he found a place in Denver -- and once he settles in, he hopes he won't have to relocate again anytime soon. Meanwhile, he has offers to record from two labels, "but I just haven't been of the mind to go into the studio," he says. "I haven't had time to really think about creating anything except impulsively, when I'm performing. Believe me, it's therapeutic, man. At least I can get a release there; I can have fun.
"I don't expect anyone to understand what I'm going through, or what any of the evacuees are going through," he admits. "We're all doing the best we can with the resources we have. I've been fortunate from time to time to get a little help from my friends and fans, and that's appreciated. You take those good things when they come, and you keep moving."
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