Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Butch Morris Time

Talk about deep: Twenty-year-old Doug Morris, a U.S. Army medic serving in Germany in 1967, studies up on applied harmony. Fifteen years later, Butch Morris would begin to reshape the sound of the jazz avant garde. Photo courtesy of Don Heffington

This post has been a long time coming, but I've finally found the time to tackle it. If you've followed Gems for a while, you'll recall we did a piece a while back on A.R. Penck that featured Butch Morris. Well, not long after that posting came the distressing news that Butch had passed away.

He'd been ill for a while, something I was unaware of (news travels slow here in the foothills of the Catskills). So it came as a shock to learn that he was gone. It seems like only yesterday he was working on his music box project and leading conductions with many musicians I know, some quite well. 

Butch had perhaps the purest sound on his instrument since ... well, since Bobby Hackett. An odd pairing, but not many contemporary horn players are cornetists, and Butch was a superb player, very much like Hackett had been decades earlier. Butch was also a master of effects on his instrument. Bubber Miley would have been impressed by his growls and feints and squawks. Mr. Morris was no stranger to the Ellington jungle.

With this entry, Gems offers its visitors two Butch Morris treasures. One is an excerpt from a conduction that Butch did in 1985 during an epic art performance piece based on the works of the Spanish painter Goya. The other is a wonderful collection of photographs from the days when Butch was known by his middle name, Douglas – days long before he was acknowledged on the downtown scene and around the world as a major innovator in the field of creative music. 

So consider this Gems' tribute to one of the great creators of late 20th and early 21st century jazz. Lawrence Douglas "Butch" Morris will be much missed. We shall not see another like him ...

When Butch was Doug

These photos come to us from Don Heffington, a gentleman whom I met over the Interwebs through a mutual friend. As a teenager, Don was in one of Butch's early bands in Los Angeles. He has graciously given permission for Gems to post these photos, all of which I believe have never been seen publicly before. Don also gave the eulogy at Butch's funeral and we've included that here as well. It tells the story of his long friendship with Butch and is a lovely tribute. Many thanks, Don!

The Doug Morris/Sam Johnson Band, above and below, in 1965. Sam Johnson on
bass, Clarence Peace on alto, pianist Andre, Doug Morris on trumpet and Don
Heffington, right, on drums. Los Angeles, 1965.

Doug Morris in the army in 1967 – Fort Ord, above, and in Germany, below.

The Doug Morris Quintet at the Palladium in 1966. Doug Morris, left, and Don
Heffington, right. Photos courtesy of Don Heffington

Going, Going, Goya

"Goya Time 1985 New York" was a grand-scale performance in the style of the "happenings" that were common art community activities in the early '60s. It was conceived and organized by one Dr. Sandro Dernini, a gent described as "an accomplished biologist from the island of Sardinia." "Goya Time" featured a script by Dernini, choreography by Gretta Safarty and music by Butch Morris. The whole affair took place in a Lower East Side building known as "Cuando," a cavernous place that had been a school at one time. By 1985 it had become a space for music concerts and art exhibits. It was gray and dreary on the inside, run down and in need of repair – in short, just the sort of venue perfect for presenting Goya's era of faded decadence and lethal intrigue.

I wasn't at the actual performance – it went on for many hours and there's just so much high art I can tolerate before I need to find an exit. But I was at part of the dress rehearsal. It was a much shorter affair, but just as chaotic, noisy and colorful as the main event. Declaiming actors wandered in and out of the gymnasium where Butch's musicians were creating a soundscape of melody, poly-rhythms and spiky cacophony. Dancers flitted by, appearing in the doorways one moment, on balconies the next. Interpretations of Goya's paintings hung on the walls and – if I remember correctly – an artist was on stage painting on a huge canvas and on a naked woman's body.

It was one whacky scene, and in the midst of it all was Butch and his musicians. The download included here is only a very small portion of the entire performance. But it captures the feel of the event and gives you an idea of how Butch could alter the music through his conduction technique to accommodate whatever was happening around him. One of the vocalists, by the way, is the extraordinary Shelly Hirsch. If you're unfamiliar with her work, Google her. She's amazing.

Butch Morris conducts "Los Capricios" during "Goya Time 1985 New York," a massive
performance piece that took place on June 13, 1985, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Photo from 

Goya Time 1985 New York
Butch Morris Ensemble
Cuando, Lower East Side, New York, NY; June 13, 1985
Butch Morris, comp, cond; JA Deane, el tbn, synth; Jason Hwang, vi; Marion Brandis, fl, alto fl, small inst; Myra Melford(?), p; Shelly Hirsch, unknown, v; others unknown.

1. Los Capricios, Part 1

Find it here:

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