The Man Who Made Conduction: Butch Morris, 1947-2013

The Man Who Made Conduction: Butch Morris, 1947-2013
Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris
(© Enid Farber)

Drummer Andrew Cyrille broke the news to me, when I showed up at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard jazz club Tuesday night: Butch Morris — a startlingly original thinker in music who arrived in New York decades ago as a cornetist and went on to develop his own version of collective improvisation, dubbed “conduction” — had died that morning. Somehow, I’d gone through the day without word. Though I knew Morris was battling cancer, his passing, just like his music, took me by surprise.

All artists invent things. The best ones change everything. All musicians affect not just what we hear but also ideas about what can be heard and assumptions about what can be played. For jazz musicians — and Morris was one, though he was also other things — the opportunity to upend assumptions — to “surprise” through sound as critic Whitney Balliett put it — becomes imperative. Few changed our ways of listening and playing as singly and unexpectedly as did Morris. He accomplished this through a combination of open-mindedness, technical rigor, dogged determination, restless energy, poised focus, taskmaster-like intensity, deep compassion for musicians, and the enterprise of making music, and love. It is no surprise that there has been an outpouring of documentation and tribute to Morris already, from writers and musicians of various ilk. I suspect and hope a memorial — several memorials, as Morris was big on multiplicities of performances in wide-ranging places — takes shape soon.

Lawrence Douglas “Butch” Morris was 65 when he succumbed to cancer. Son of a Navy man, having served as a medic in the Army himself in the 1960s in Germany, Vietnam, and Japan, Morris died at Veteran Affairs Medical Center in the Fort Hamilton section of Brooklyn, New York. Morris was born in Long Beach, California, on February 10, 1947, and was raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He played trumpet while growing up, and then cornet. After some time in Oakland, California, Morris spent a brief period in the 1970s in New York City, before leaving in 1976 for five years of teaching in France and the Netherlands. He returned to New York in 1981. He lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, becoming both a fixture of New York’s downtown scene and a figure of international renown.

At the Vanguard on Tuesday, Cyrille — now 73, and among jazz’s best and most daring drummers — reflected a bit on Morris’s innovations as well as his easygoing manner and deep loyalty as a friend. “He always did his own thing, right from the start,” Cyrille said. “He always had his own thing, you know.” He recalled stories Morris told about the horrors of wartime, of picking up bodies in blood-filled fields. He mentioned cassettes he still has of he and Morris, recorded not long after Morris arrived in New York and was still playing cornet, and pointed to the beauty Morris could appreciate within a single note.

In a finely honed New York Times obituary, Ben-19076">Ben Ratliff offered good context for the revolutionary technique Morris pursued in the 1980s and refined in the decades since:

“Mr. Morris referred to his method as ‘conduction, short for ‘conducted improvisation.’ He defined the word, which he trademarked, as ‘an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor’….  He introduced this concept in 1985 and at first met resistance from musicians who were not willing to learn the vocabulary and respond to the signals; he was often in a position of asking artists to reorient themselves to his imagination and make something new out of familiar materials. But he demanded to be taken seriously, and he was. After 10 years he had made enough recordings to release ‘Testament,’ a well-received 10-disc set of his work. After 20, he had become an internationally admired creative force, presenting conductions at concert halls worldwide and maintaining regular workshops and performances at the East Village spaces Nublu, Lucky Cheng’s and the Stone.”

Howard Mandel packed a wonderful NPR “All Things Considered” piece full of evocative clips of music and interviews that gracefully frame and condense Morris’s work and concept. He begins with Morris’s cornet tone. He recalled how Morris and his friend and early collaborator, saxophonist David Murray, developed a style they dubbed “avant gubucket.” Morris can be heard from an earlier interview discussing how conduction involves “teaching a vocabulary to an ensemble” and negotiating “the great divide between what is notated and what is improvised.” There’s a soundclip included from a documentary on Morris, “Black February,” in which Morris instructed an ensemble: “The music needs more fantasy.” In another soundclip, Morris says plainly:

“I’m a jazz musician. I know what I am. Whether you think the music I’m playing or professing is kind of not my problem, you know what I mean?”

The man who made that documentary, Vipal Monga, posted a tribute on The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy site that includes this insight:

“But what shouldn’t get lost in the eulogies that have begun flooding the internet is the fact that Conduction, beyond an innovative system of music making, was in Butch’s hands a deeply demanding and personal method of self-exploration. It wasn’t just about the music, but about the people who were making the music.”

In the Chicago Reader, Peter Margasak shared this early revelation from Morris that also sheds light on arguments about what does and doesn’t constitute swinging music, from a man with deep roots in the idea:

“In his liner notes for 1995’s remarkable ten-CD box set ‘Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World),’ Morris writes about something this approach taught him early on, when he was working with musicians in Europe: ‘I realized how different the players were, their interpretation of material and their response to the gestural vocabulary. This again started my mind buzzing. This is not jazz, this is not classical — not free, it is what it is. Everyone can find their home in this music, everyone could interpret it any way they liked (within reason). The one thing that it does have, no matter where it’s done, that makes it akin to jazz is combustion and ignition. To me this is the essence of swing.’”

On The New Yorker’s website, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum gives elegant and specific insight into Morris’s aesthetic and its significance. He summarizes Morris’s beginnings:

“Butch Morris first emerged in the nineteen-seventies as a cornetist of warm tone and high invention, performing on important albums by saxophonists David Murray, Steve Lacy, and Frank Lowe. In a period that prized musical fireworks, Morris displayed a subtler appreciation for timbre and effect reminiscent of earlier jazz heroes like Ellington stalwarts Rex Stewart and Bubber Miley, with an orchestral sense of register and dynamics that hinted at his future exploits. During that time, he worked with several musicians, including pianist/composer Horace Tapscott and drummer Charles Moffett, who introduced him to the basic idea of conducted improvisations.”

And Bynum quite brilliantly contextualizes the dilemma and opportunity Morris seized upon with his creative approach:

“By the nineteen-sixties, artists across the jazz continuum, like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, began to question the need to rely on composition at all, embracing the possibilities presented by ‘free improvisation.’ This is a deeply misleading term, for any improviser worth his or her salt is continually concerned with structure, while recognizing that structure might be a mutable concept. But the sense of artistic freedom was real (and historically apropos in the era of the civil-rights movement and Black Power), as revolutionary musicians sought musical forms that existed separate from the Western concepts of tonality and song form.

“For the generation of musicians following Coleman et al., the question was a familiar one of post-modernity: After freedom, what? How can one translate the euphoric intensity of total improvisation to other contexts and other cultures? How can one remain dedicated to improvisation’s ethos without being trapped by it? Butch Morris proposed a provocative answer: reintroducing the conductor, the ultimate figure of Western classical hierarchy, as a means to organize improvised sound.”

There’s a YouTube clip from Italian TV in which Morris offers a very down to earth explanation of what his conduction method prizes and how it translates across borders and cultures (and there’s something beautifully appropriate and touching, I think, in even the fact that the whole exchange gets translated in real time. Another YouTube clip, documenting Conduction #192, gives a tiny window into how Morris used his body as a vehicle in his music making.

In 2005, to mark conduction’s 20th anniversary, Morris mounted “Black February,” a New York series that showcased his music every night of the month in a dozen different formats at a dozen venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Among them were a 27-piece “Skyscraper” Orchestra at the Bowery Poetry Club on Sundays that blended horns, strings, and electronics; “Band Big,” a more traditional large jazz ensemble at the Knitting Factory on Tuesdays; a 15-voice choir at midtown’s Medicine Show on Wednesdays; and open-to-all-musicians Saturday workshops at the East Village’s Project Room.

How did it all get started? “Twenty years ago,” Morris told me over the phone during the last week of his run, “I started to think about how to take the compositions that I was writing and lift them off the page. Every day, I was getting new ideas about how to develop notation, and that’s why I started to build the conduction vocabulary. After a while, I decided not to use music at all because I wanted to see how far I could take the conduction vocabulary on its own.”

At the Knitting Factory on a Tuesday night, one piece began with a simple bass figure. A sweep of Morris’s hand brought about a change of direction, with a series of tension-and-release sections, highlighted by call-and response solos from saxophonist J.D. Allen and trumpeter Graham Haynes. In the next piece, laden with dramatic extended chords, Morris seized on a tenor saxophone figure and enticed the players, one by one, to replicate it and then to transform it into something entirely new. On a Sunday at the Bowery Poetry Club, Morris toyed less with dynamics and more with the possibilities of timbre, making use of harp, synthesizer, accordion, and double reeds in all sorts of combination.

At Zebulon in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, Morris’s Nublu Orchestra worked funk-based and tango-flavored tunes from behind music stands. This was the only weekly gig that featured composed music. It was a return to older material — mostly tunes Morris had written some 25 years ago, when he worked regularly with saxophonist David Murray — but also a hint at where Morris’s work was heading. “This series marks a point of closure for me,” Morris said in 2005. “I think I’ve come to grips with the fact that my vocabulary can sustain both my musical desires and those of my musicians. So I think it’s time to refocus on composition, and to wed the two.” In the years that followed, he did.

If you doubt that Morris’s art was social commentary as well as pure art, consider the title of the first recorded conduction: “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America.” Not long after the release of singer Cassandra Wilson’s 1995 album “New Moon Daughter,” I told Morris how I’d been touched by his cornet playing on Wilson’s version of the song “Love is Blindness.” I asked him why he didn’t play cornet more often in public or on recordings. “A lot of people don’t understand,” he told me, “that I love to make music, but it’s not necessary for me to play all the time.” Morris was big on art, but not so much on artifice. “There are two people whose profession I don’t understand,” he once told me. “The actor acts like this big machine’s not in front of him, and the conductor acts like he’s making the music.” Then, with a sweeping hand gesture of the sort he might use while conducting, he added, “I make music rather than interpret it.”