New York Stories: Vivien Goldman

A post-punk professor remembers an electric bandleader of the Lower East Side.

This is a song for a spirit. A fickle, tempestuous trickster that flits from one place to the next, one player’s horn to the other, sprinkling giddy freedom. Maybe that euphoria can never be a constant state, but while you feel and live it, it’s as joyous as it gets. So what can a poor human do to reliably provoke that sensation?

If musicians improvising together only play what they feel, without listening and bouncing off their cohorts – well, it’s not the best anarchy.

In the East Village that sense of release was regularly obtainable at a venue that has survived the tsunami of gentrification: Nublu on Avenue C. Bliss was often provided by the boîte’s resident genius Butch Morris and the musical style he devised: Conduction. Impish and sagacious, the dapper Butch dressed in bright, floppy clothes. Face framed by a soft gray afro nimbus and fulsome goatee, he was a two-tone spats or sandals sort of fellow, an original boho boulevardier.

Naturally, Butch’s style and honey personality made him a familiar figure around the villages of Alphabet City and the Lower East Side. Its streets gave him a haven, as they had fellow jazz-improvising horn men before him, like harmolodic dude Don Cherry, one of whose classics is named “Brown Rice.” Cherry was fond of the tofu scramble at the Life Café on Avenue B at Tompkins Square Park, facing Charlie Parker’s old pad, but the fine wines and French cuisine of the Casimir bistro on Avenue B were more Butch’s speed than vegan fare (in that sense, he was a bon viveur of the old school). He owned the LES and was a mascot of local haunts like Arcane and Lucien. Casimir’s neo-Parisian ambience was “Butch’s office.”

Butch Morris – Conduction #188

His frequent collaborator, cornetist Graham Haynes, observes, “In this country we live to work. Butch knew how to work and take time out to live. You have to live so that you can be at peace and happy. Then you will have a story to tell in your art.”

Perhaps it was a knack for art/life balance that enabled Butch to come up with one of music’s greatest balancing acts: his Conduction method, short for Conducted Improvisation. But surely, you say, that’s a contradiction in terms? Not so. Rather like free will, which all too often bumps up against some pesky limitation, or a free lunch (which rarely is), free-jazz improvisation itself is not quite as free as you might think. If you only ever improvise alone, it’s a bit like always playing badminton against yourself. After a while, humans want to bounce their notes against others, and not just hit the wall of their own fabulousness over and over again.

But how?

If musicians improvising together only play what they feel, without listening and bouncing off their cohorts – well, it’s not the best anarchy.

Ornette Coleman, aided by Cherry, came up with the solution of harmolodics. Busting the four-bar barrier, harmolodics involves many rehearsal hours to attain the level of empathy necessary for players to flow together. People jam to their own spontaneous tunes, inspired by an underlying melodic motif and interacting with fellow musicians; everyone is united to form a greater, unpredictable whole. Harmolodic players walk a musical tightrope on an invisible wire of skill and communication.

Butch’s solution was the reverse. Butch was the visible wire on which all the musicians walked. He was the Wizard of his own Oz – though Butch never hid behind a curtain. To perform Conduction, the musicians did not even need to have met each other before. The common denominator is that each player had to understand Butch’s visually coded language of signs, indicating by facial expressions and gestures when players should change their speed, volume, tone. They all simply started responding to some sound or tune thrown at them by Butch and took it from there. Butch developed Conduction as a benevolent dictator of musicians glad to be subject to his will.

“I always knew I was going to learn with Butch,” says Haynes. “The way Butch heard music was very precious – his attention to silence, dynamics, and negative and positive space. I wasn’t getting that from anyone else...and I work with a lot of people.”

Butch Morris New Music Observatory - Conduction #180

Like a few other jazzmen of his generation, the young Butch, a native Angeleno, had served in Vietnam. Afterwards, he bopped about the planet quite freely, creating and collaborating with multimedia artists and big orchestras on both coasts, and in Europe and Asia. When Nublu’s anonymous façade, with its single light and no signage, opened on Avenue C, it was a reason for jubilation – now Butch had his own live laboratory close to home. Before Nublu opened, Alphabet City was still largely Hispanic, known as “Loisaida.” Local nightlife scenes like the World and Pyramid had closed. What would become John Zorn’s venue The Stone was still the Golden Dragon Chinese Takeout – eat there at your peril.

At a tipping point, Loisaida’s graffiti’d squats were about to be razed for condos; soon enough it would be easier to find a wine bar than a Santeria botanica on Avenue C. Just a block away from the East River, Loisaida felt like it was not just on the edge of an island, but its own freewheeling fringe world, one in which Butch was a creative king. But that Loisaida was starting to be squeezed out along with the squatters and candy stores. Naturally, Butch still reigned among the hipster set, but many of his local compadres were leaving the area involuntarily. Says Butch’s good friend, producer Brian Bacchus, “Nublu seemed like a rebirth of all the wonderful chaotic creativity of the 1970s and ’80s, which Giuliani and gentrification had almost squelched in the ’90s.”

There’s always a vibe working without written music.

Brandon Ross

Much as the 1940s bebop clubs around 42nd Street were venues for musical sparring, so was Swedish-Turkish musician Ilhan Fredrik Ersahin eager to create a downtown locus for DJs, improvisers, and a dancey avant-garde when he opened Nublu in 2002; three years later, Butch’s Conduction sessions there formalized into the Nublu Orchestra.

Many of his best-known Conductions are numbered, but Butch’s first Nublu sessions were so experimental they were off the grid. Still, relaxed as he was socially, when it came to Conduction, “Butch was a monster!,” Haynes remembers. “He would terrorize people if he thought they made a mistake.” But Haynes, Butch and guitarist Brandon Ross were musical soulmates. Those who couldn’t take the fire, left.

“You had to leave your agenda at the door,” says Ross. “You had to put your concentration and whatever resources you had available at that moment with Butch. That’s what Conduction summons of people, what Butch asked of people.”

I also went to hear Butch to submit. Overlapping waves of feeling induced by the shape-shifting music would sweep me along like a serene or stormy river. In the course of one Conduction concert I would feel a gamut of emotions, as if Conduction was a group therapy session. And this from a random bunch of bodies, all obedient to Butch’s baton. Whoever turned up to play would get a 15-minute briefing from Butch, and the gig would proceed to be whatever it was, like a tasty soup cooked with whatever’s around.

“There’s always a vibe working without written music,” comments Ross. “Butch might grab something he heard when the band was setting up and start to sing from that sound. The music was exciting because you really did not know what was going to happen.”

In the course of one Conduction concert I would feel a gamut of emotions, as if Conduction was a group therapy session.

Butch later spread his workshops, projects and musical-collective sessions to other East Village haunts like Lucky Cheng’s, The Bowery Poetry Club and The Stone, but Nublu was where he was able to stretch out over a period of time. It was also just a short stroll home from Nublu to East 7th Street, with his hat jammed down tight and his oversize coat flapping against the cold dawn wind on Avenue C.

Conduction was one man’s musical concept, but time tells us that it’s taken root. Before Butch died, he had the felicity of seeing other Conduction ensembles flourish, including the Burnt Sugar collective founded by Greg Tate, who used to play guitar with Butch at Nublu.

“Conduction lives because we’re all Bozos on this bus! And therefore wanna keep standing next to the fire of a postmodern pan-Afrikan master of the universe who walked it like he talked it. No Sell Out,” Tate notes in an email.

So this is a song for a spirit. As I said, it’s a trickster and can be fickle; it likes to flit about. For some luminous years, it alighted on Butch Morris and Loisaida. If we call out and listen loud enough, it might alight right where we are.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, *a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.

By Vivien Goldman on May 28, 2013

On a different note