Pianist Henry Butler and clarinetist Dr. Michael White — two New Orleans musicians who lost so much a year ago to Hurricane Katrina, including their homes, instruments and archives — gave everything they had left on a wonderful double bill at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall on September 2nd. Their performances — Butler alone on ivories and vocals; White in a taut high-stepping quartet with trumpet, banjo and upright bass — were both frank in their despair and defiant in their euphoria, perfect demonstrations of the devastated magic of the Crescent City and the fighting spirit of its music and soul.
In conversation with the critic Ashley Kahn at the start of the night, Butler and White spoke of their continuing struggles with life in exile and hapless government relief efforts. But, White insisted, “playing music has been therapeutic for us.” And the healing started right away, in Butler’s set, with his robust reimagining of Fats Waller’s “The Viper’s Drag.” His left hand hit the bass-note creep like a marching army as his right hand made bright improvised fireworks of the melody. Butler also showed off his love and study of Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Art Tatum and James Booker in his muscular, walking-bass runs and detailed high-end explosions in W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” Butler’s own “New Orleans Inspiration” and his high-speed tribute to Booker, “L’Espirit d’James.” This show was also a rare chance to see Butler — who often plays live with an electric piano — at a Steinway grand, with the extra natural resonance of wire and wood in his attack.
White is a genuine doctor, a professor and historian of African-American music, particularly New Orleans jazz of the Twenties and Thirties. (He lost his entire personal library of recordings, interviews and memorabilia in the floodwaters.) But White is no academic on the licorice stick. He blows high and wild, in curls and wails, peeling melodies apart with dynamic slalom-like runs and punctuating phrases with squeals of laughter. Tonight, in the traditional dancehall romp “Shake It, Don’t Break It” and the beans-and-rice valentine “Louisian-ia” White and trumpeter Gregg Stafford veered from brisk formation melodies into exciting tandem solos, tangles of competitive joy that left them both smiling broadly after the final chorus. But White insisted to the audience that classic New Orleans jazz is a living art, and he proved it by showcasing the fiery young trumpeter Maurice Brown in a hot-footed scramble through King Oliver’s “Canal Street Blues.” White also played a new original composition, a snake-like meditation on clarinet fortified with Stafford’s impish bursts of muted horn and ending with White in a long, sunlit solo that climaxed with a single climbing note that seemed to have no end. The piece was, like everything else this evening, a tribute to the hope that lives amid the wreckage of America’s greatest musical city. The title of the song: “Optimistic Blues.”