Artist Interrupted

More than a year after Katrina, an American music legend still can't get home.

Henry Butler
The blind pianist could only imagine the damage wrought by Katrina.
The blind pianist could only imagine the damage wrought by Katrina.
Acclaimed keyboardist Henry Butler had a great house in New Orleans: a 4,100-square-foot spread with a studio and plenty of room for his collection of musical instruments, including a 1925 Mason & Hamlin piano -- one of his most beloved possessions.

"My apartment in Boulder [Colorado] was a campground compared to that," Butler says. He's exaggerating, but not by much. In fall 2005 he relocated to Colorado, moving into a nice, if modest apartment. Before long, he felt comfortable there and would have stayed longer if his landlords hadn't decided to tear down the structure in order to build luxury condominiums. They gave him until this week to move out, but he couldn't return to New Orleans: On August 29 of last year, Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods devastated the city.

When Butler, 57, did return to his house for the first time in early December, he couldn't see the destruction; he's blind. But the gifted musician didn't need sight to comprehend how seven to nine feet of water destroyed virtually everything he hadn't been able to take with him before the hurricane hit, including one-of-a-kind Braille scores he had created for each of his albums, his collection of "analog cameras," more than $20,000 worth of stage clothing, and, yes, the piano.

Fortunately, nothing can spoil memories of a city and state he loves. A New Orleans native, he attended 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."

As an alternative, Butler became a professional musician -- one who actually earned a decent living. That's because Butler has overcome just about every obstacle put before him (he's a blind photographer). What's more, he possesses rare talent. His piano-playing bridges the gulf between the rollicking New Orleans style and improvisational jazz without sacrificing his own individuality.

Beginning with 1985's Fivin' Around, Butler released eight critically admired solo recordings and teamed with bluesman Corey Harris on 2000's impressive Vu-Du Menz CD. During this span, he gained a reputation as one of New Orleans' finest musical ambassadors as well as a player's player admired by such luminaries as Keith Richards, B.B. King, and U2's the Edge. Yet he continued to reach out to young blind musicians through the Creative Music and Jazz Camp, which he established at the University of New Orleans.

Initially, Butler had planned to ride out the hurricane, but he changed his mind after friends 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." 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 fund-raisers to a tour that took him from coast to coast.

In October of 2005, Butler checked into a Boulder motel, which allowed him to stay without charge for nearly two weeks while he looked for an apartment.

"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, however, didn't end once he found a place. 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'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. 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 says. "It's time to stand up, to rebel, to not only make a statement, but to take action."

With so much left unresolved, Butler desperately wants to lay down more permanent roots. On the eve of his eviction date, he relocated from Boulder to Denver. 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 don't expect anyone to understand what I'm going through or what any of the evacuees are going through. 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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