By Kristi Kates
Accomplished pianist/clarinetist Butch Thompson - also a Grammy Award winner and one of Garrison Keillors Prairie Home Companion sidekicks - is on his way to the City Opera House in TC this Saturday, complete with his all-star New Orleans Jazz Originals lineup.
Its set to be a great show from the career musician and informal jazz historian whos well-steeped in the legends and sounds of the NAwlins music scene - a long cry from Thompsons low-key Midwestern beginnings.
I was born in a small town on the St. Croix River in Minnesota, Thompson explains. the population there was 300, with the nearest big city, St. Paul, about 30 miles away.
The first live music Thompson heard was played on the familys upright piano. He started formal lessons with a local pianist when he was six, and grew up listening to his dads jazz recordings up to the World War II era, becoming a fan of Louis Armstrong from the time he turned 10 years old.
What fascinated me about that music was the rhythm, I think, Thompson says, as a teenager, I was also involved with the 50s music of my own generation - Fats Domino, Elvis - but I was more fascinated with early jazz.
Piano lessons began for Thompson at the age of six, while clarinet became part of his musical life in high school, where he played in the school band.
I loved the clarinet because I had heard great jazz clarinetists on my dads records, Thompson recollects. I was also crazy about boogie-woogie piano as a teenager, and used to play the 50s popular hits in that style, which went over very well with my high school classmates.
In college, he met the Hall Brothers Jazz Band, a six-piece outfit that played traditional New Orleans-style jazz, and they took the upstart performer on as their clarinetist Louisiana suddenly became only a few steps away.
I learned a lot from them, and traveled to New Orleans numerous times while in college, he says.
NEW ORLEANS TRAINING
Thompsons experiences in New Orleans were anchored by his early meetings of what he calls the old-timers - NAwlins local legend musicians who were part of the scene there.
There was a clarinetist, George Lewis - he was in his early 60s when I met him - I bought all the recordings (of his) that I could find, and tried hard to imitate everything he did, Thompson says.
New Orleans famed Preservation Hall, set deep in the French Quarter with its rotating roster of jazz bands, opened in 1961 - and Thompson was practically on its doorstep, soon to become one of the few non-locals to perform at the venue.
I was there by early 1962. he says, The entire Hall Brothers band was there, and we were invited to play a party. Allan Jaffe, who ran the place, invited a lot of the older musicians who performed regularly at the Hall, so we sat there and played for them. They were extremely friendly and interested in what we were doing - which was wonderful - but the best part was when a number of them sat in.
Thats where my real New Orleans training began.
By the mid-60s, Thompson was learning everything that he could about the old style in New Orleans, right alongside his fellow musicians, both established talents and newbies. He never actually lived in the city of his inspiration, but he spent ample chunks of time there, and was sometimes even hired to perform with some of his heroes.
It was a great honor, and I learned more than I can possibly say, Thompson says.
JUMPIN JAZZ ORIGINALS
Taking all of this acquired knowledge and skill and putting it into a band project of his own would become the achievement that Thompson is perhaps best known for these days, next to his work with Keillors show (he was house pianist/bandleader for Prairie Home... from 1974 to 1985, and continues to make appearances today) His popular New Orleans Jazz Originals group brings together some of the best early jazz players in the country, with Thompson happily at the helm.
Theyre all friends and collaborators of mine, he says, theyre from all over the country, and we can only get together on tour, but whenever we book a show, everything just gells perfectly.
The band, Thompson says, doesnt have a particular method of putting together their live setlist, either.
The simple answer is that we play things we like, he explains, we include ragtime, blues, vintage pop songs, spirituals, and more.
This, of course, is part of the bands success - not only do they include tunes that will appeal to a wide range of jazz fans, but their carefree enthusiasm is infectious, as is Thompsons own appreciation for the opportunities hes had as a musician to date. His shows are fun and energetic, and the music, of course, is played with top-notch skill.
I am extremely lucky to be able to bring the music that means so much to me to a wider audience, he says, my shows are not designed as history lessons - theyre supposed to be entertainment. Its a lesson I take from Louis Armstrong. He had the highest musical standards, but a big part of his mission was to entertain - its the New Orleans way.
Butch Thompson and The New Orleans Jazz Originals will be in concert at the City Opera House in Traverse City on Saturday, January 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets $35/$20, student tickets $15. www.cityoperahouse.org.