Butch Thompson (1944-2022)
Date Posted: 2022-09-08

Pianist and clarinetist Butch Thompson, one of GHB-Jazzology’s longest-serving artists, died August 14 of complications of Alzheimer’s’ He discontinued touring when he was diagnosed about four years ago and worked around Minneapolis until a year ago.

He was a giant both as a pianist and a clarinetist and evolved from a specialist in the pianism of Jelly Roll Morton and clarinet style of George Lewis into a musician with a full command of most areas of traditional jazz. He was also a talented researcher and critic and wrote numerous analyses, and record, book and concert reviews in a thirty-five year term as a contributing editor of The Mississippi Rag. He also broadcast a weekly jazz radio show on KBEM, a local NPR outlet in Minneapolis.

Thompson made his first record for us (GHB-11, Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band) in 1965, and he continued to record until recently. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the GHB Jazz Foundation for several years in the 1990s.

He began his musical studies early- his mother started him on piano when he was six and he learned the clarinet when he was in the 6th grade so he could play in the school band. He said two things impressed him early- watching Sugar Chile Robinson playing the piano in a movie, and playing a boogie-woogie version of Rock Around the Clock for a middle-school talent show. His father encouraged his record collecting and he was able to attend concerts featuring Louis Armstrong and Arthur Rubinstein.

While in high school he was hired to transcribe solos from classic jazz records for Dr. Henry Blackburn, a soprano saxophonist and leader of the ‘Amatooters’, a for-fun band including several of his colleagues from medical school. Thompson found surprising value in the music of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and his tastes evolved away from modern jazz and swing to New Orleans jazz.

He started at the University of Minnesota in 1962 and at the same time joined the Hall Brothers Jazz Band, an amateur band who played after-hours concerts in a body shop near the U. They were serious New Orleans revivalists (cornetist Charlie Devore served in the Navy in New Orleans in the 1950s and fell under the spell of William Russell) and Butch was invited to go to NO with the band almost immediately. He arrived in the midst of a busy week- George Lewis was recording his Jazz at Preservation Hall LP for Atlantic, and they all went to Preservation Hall for a rip-roaring session after they left the studio. He was permanently bonded to New Orleans.

He was working a grueling schedule- six nights a week with Doc Evans- and dropped out of school- he was drafted and sent to Fort Benning GA, where he spent two years standing on the tarmac, playing the Star-Spangled Banner for planeloads of soldiers taking off for Vietnam. Being in the Southeast had its advantages- he met George Buck, who then lived in SC and Leonard Brackett, of Center Records, who was in NC; Leonard produced Butch’s first two solo piano LPs in 1966 and 1967. He also gigged on tenor sax with rock and roll pioneer Frankie Lymon, who was serving in his unit.

He returned to the University of Minnesota when he got out and returned to the Hall Brothers, who by that time owned the Emporium of Jazz, one of the most successful small jazz clubs ever. He finished the UofM as a Summa Cum Laude; they even sent him to Ecuador to study local folk music, which resulted in his Ecuadorian Suite, which he recorded and performed with local symphony orchestras.

There wasn’t enough money in music so he became a sportswriter for a local paper. The editor interviewed twelve jocks for the job and hired Butch because he could write, even though he knew nothing about sports. He transitioned into two teaching positions at local colleges, which supplemented his Hall Brothers money.

He spent a lot of time in New Orleans and became a close associate of William Russell, the foremost authority on early jazz and ragtime. He began appearing at jazz festivals, the first being the ragtime festival on the Goldenrod in St Louis, where he met and was influenced by the legendary Eubie Blake.

During the 1980s Thompson made his first trips to Europe, often playing with local groups, and recorded several LPs over there. He also toured Europe with the Black Eagle Jazz Band.

Garrison Keillor was a local figure in Minneapolis- he was editor of the campus literary magazine when Butch was an undergraduate, and later wrote for the New Yorker. He started the Prairie Home Companion for Minnesota Public Radio, and Butch was an early guest. When the show went national he became musical director, which involved providing music with his trio and working with a variety of musical guests, which ranged from well-known jazz stars to folksingers and Nashville celebrities. He developed a laconic style, which lent itself perfectly to Keillor’s wonderful sketches. He recorded several albums for the PHC and also accompanied some of the regulars from the show on their projects.

During the 1990s Thompson consulted with the producers of Jelly’s Last Jam, a Broadway musical about Jelly Roll Morton, until he determined it was musically and historically worthless. He later toured in Jelly Roll Morton: A Me-Morial, s show written by Vernal Bagneris, and for which Butch alternated with Morton Gunnar Larsen and Paul Asaro.

The exposure from Prairie Home Companion allowed him to book concert tours, much like Preservation Hall did. He had several shows available and did solo shows, toured with a trio featuring Duke Heitger, and often toured in groups led by Hal Smith. After the success of his Yulestride album (Daring Records) he wrote a Christmas show and toured annually and made appearances alongside local community choirs. He also performed with local symphonies in a show featuring his Ecuadorian Suite and several arrangements of Scott Joplin rags accompanied by the orchestra. The Emporium of Jazz closed about this time, though several of the Hall Brothers’ band continued to work local jobs until about ten years ago, and he often sat in with them. He was forced to give up the clarinet several years ago when an old finger injury limited his dexterity enough that he couldn’t play any more.

Thompson was recognized as a Steinway artist, an honor accorded only to major concert performers- you get a grand piano for your home, and they’ll provide one at all major performing venues.

Thompson was the greatest interpreter of the music of Jelly Roll Morton, and he was equally adept at the music of all of the other great stylists- Jimmy Yancey, Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, Little Brother Montgomery and Dink Johnson. On clarinet he was inspired by all the great New Orleans stylists- Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon and Barney Bigard.

I knew Butch for almost sixty years and I don’t think anything in my life was as bad as knowing that Alzheimers’ would soon take him away. Fortunately Thompson recorded prolifically on both piano and clarinet, and with a wide variety of accompaniments. His recorded legacy includes about forty LPs and CDs, recorded all around the world over a fifty-five year recording career.

-Paige VanVorst

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