The late Butch Morris, a figure from the outer edges of jazz, reimagined conducting as a form of composition, coining his own word for the combination of the two.
Written by FRANCIS DAVIS
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Summer 2015 issue. It is being republished as originally written, without new reporting.
Live performance tempts us to look at music as well as listen to it—to focus as much on the physical effort required to manufacture a sound as on the sound itself. What’s true for live music goes double for attempts to document it: With opera, rock, or Broadway musicals, we usually keep our eyes glued to the singers; with classical or jazz, we’re often not sure where we’re supposed to be looking, and neither is the camera.
The mixture that Morris heard in this combination was so vital, so novel, that he gave it its own name—conduction—even going so far as to trademark the term.
This is where a bandleader or, better still, a conductor comes in. Disgruntled members of elite orchestras might tell you that a conductor is superfluous—an arm-waving proxy not just for a dead composer but for a live audience; from the musician’s vantage point, more distraction than cynosure. While my own long-ago experience singing Wagner and Orff under the supervision of an acrobatic, Bernstein-infatuated high school choir director suggests otherwise, these musicians may have a point. After all, the conductor is the only figure on stage looking in the same direction as the attendees, facing the music but not among those producing it.
The late Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris split the difference between conducting and composing—as well as the difference between avant-garde “jazz” and “serious” composition. It’s worth taking a moment to note his contributions in both worlds, which might be best understood against the backdrop of some music history.
A common knock against orchestra members is that their belief that they don’t need a conductor to know the score frequently results in a reluctance (if not outright refusal) to learn new works. This complacency amounts to a kind of neophobia that might be no more than a self-defense against the difficulties presented by 20th-century music.
This sort of aversion to the new goes back at least as far as the great French composer Hector Berlioz (“Symphonie Fantastique;” “Les Troyens”), who, beginning in the 1830s, even as his reputation grew, taught himself conducting out of frustration with established maestros (and presumably, orchestral soloists and section-members) eager to perform his works but unwilling to put in the time to master their proto-modernist nuances. In time, Berlioz’s renown as a conductor began to rival his fame as a composer, to the point where he’s still an influence on conductors today. Even so, Berlioz never secured a position as director of a major orchestra; he instead traveled between European capitals to oversee performances of his own works, in effect becoming an itinerant conductor.
Though based in New York from the 1970s on, “Butch” Morris—a Vietnam War veteran who died from lung cancer in 2014, at age 65—followed a path similar to that of Berlioz, earning most of his living in Europe. The difference between Morris and someone like Berlioz (or, for that matter, other contemporary jazz globetrotters) was that for Morris, the art of composition and the art of conducting gradually became indivisible. The mixture that Morris heard in this combination seemed to him so vital, so unprecedented, that he gave it its own name—”conduction”—even going so far as to trademark the term.
Commenting on his own experience as a conductor, Berlioz once wrote that no instrumental virtuoso could ever know his “ecstasy in ‘playing’ the entire orchestra.” (I’m guessing that Morris, a former cornetist, would have understood perfectly, having put aside his instrument to play all of them.)
His breakthrough was in gradually devising a complex series of hand signals—48 by 2010, reportedly—that allowed him to approach composition as a moment-by-moment activity.
“Virtuoso” is a word tossed around wantonly in jazz, where it’s trickier to define than in classical music, if only because improvisatory acumen needs to be taken into account. On the basis of his first few albums as a leader, as well as his work with the tenor saxophonist David Murray, and others in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the California-born Morris hardly qualified as a virtuoso by the even the loosest standards. Nonetheless, as he worked his way into New York’s avant-garde jazz circles, he made himself an asset to any band he joined, distinguishing himself as a spirited cornet soloist. In retrospect, though, it should have been apparent from some of Morris’s early pieces for Murray (notably, the moody, combustible Charles Mingus-like ballad “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress,” in 1976) that Morris was after something else, something bigger and not easily categorized.
One might think conductors have never held much place in jazz, but one is mentioned in what’s believed to be the first serious article ever written about jazz, from 1918. This was the Swiss conductor and music critic Ernest Ansermet’s review of a performance by Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, featuring Sidney Bechet. The review is often quoted in the literature on jazz for Ansermet’s prescient observation that the solos by Sidney Bechet, the outfit’s star soloist, might be “the highway along which the whole world will swing tomorrow.” Generally overlooked is Ansermet’s praise for Will Marion Cook, the band’s leader. “There is no orchestra leader I so delight in seeing conduct,” said Ansermet, who we can assume recognized a great conductor when he saw one.
Conductors became an absolute necessity during the Big Band era, as dance arrangements grew more complex. Even so, the art of conducting a band often involved little more than cueing and cutting off soloists, shaping dynamics, and counting off time. This didn’t necessarily involve using a baton or undue hand-waving: Duke Ellington’s men, for example, knew to keep their eyes on Duke’s hips as well as the scores on their music stands. (Likewise, Thelonious Monk’s soft shoe while standing nowhere near the piano bench.)
By the mid-‘80s, Morris was on his way to evolving his own style, conducting as well as contributing material to Murray’s big band, the most influential large ensemble of the era. The three or four basic hand-signals Morris utilized on his first conductions—cueing improvisers when to enter and exit, indicating how long they should sustain a note, and that sort of thing—were by no means unprecedented in jazz or New Music. His breakthrough was in gradually devising a complex series of hand signals—48 by 2010, reportedly—that allowed him to approach composition as a moment-by-moment activity, a paradoxical form of free improvisation.
The simplest yet most composerly of Morris’s hand signals was to hold up a digit… or two… or three… or four… to note a spontaneous passage he wanted his watchful musicians to bookmark mentally, and possibly reprise later on in the performance. In responding to these signals, his ensemble members were also being challenged to respond to one another. And he to them: “I’m improvising too,” he once said, “and ninety percent of the time, I’m improvising from what they’re playing.” [You can watch an example of this in the short video found in our sidebar: “Butch Morris Demonstrates the Art of Conduction.”]
Morris studied conducting in California in the 1970s with Jacquie Hairston, a renowned specialist in African Diaspora music, before migrating to New York. Once, in response to liberties he’d taken with a piece, Hairston observed that if the composer wanted that, he would have written it. “She had no idea that the kind of music I was trying to make was improvised music,” Morris later told the poet David Henderson. “And I wanted to structure the improvisations in a way that free[ly] improvised music didn’t… What I realized is, in traditional conducting, they don’t create music, they interpret music. That’s the difference between what I do and what a conductor of traditional music does. I’m making music, they are not.”
Except perhaps for a few of his early, relatively conventional pieces for Murray and others, Morris is survived by no scores, only recordings. Unless something else surfaces (we can always hope), his last documented “conduction” was “Possible Universe” (or “Conduction 162,” to give its opus number), recorded at an Italian festival in 2010.
Morris delighted in international festivals like this, where he could gather together musicians from different schools and disparate cultural backgrounds, in the hope of edging them out of their comfort zones. The 15-piece ensemble he leads here includes two of everything—tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, trombone, trumpet, guitar, bass, percussion—plus a synthesizer played by Alan Silva, a musician celebrated for his own improvisational work on a range of instruments.
The assembled personnel nods to each of the many subgenres spawned over the last 50 years, both in the U.S. and abroad, by what was originally called “free jazz.” One of the tenor saxophonists, for example, is Evan Parker, a founder (along with the guitarist Derek Bailey) of a peculiarly British style of 1960s, from-scratch improvisation more cerebral than the headlong, frequently angry variants of free jazz then taking shape elsewhere. Parker is paired with David Murray, a high priest of ‘70s New York “loft” jazz, and even an experienced listener like myself might have trouble telling them apart—precisely Morris’s point, I’ll bet.
As Morris’s last recorded work, “Possible Universe” has to sum him up as an artist and serve as his memorial. It succeeds admirably on both counts. Some highlights: Part Three’s treadmill-like rhythmic cycles, approximating a groove without lapsing into regular time; Part Five’s looping, Ellington-influenced orchestral riff (it swings like the dickens); and the long finale’s midpoint metamorphosis from a somber exercise in motion and stasis into a gorgeous concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra.
At its most high-flying, this music gives an impression of having been performed note-for-note from a pre-existing score. It wasn’t, of course, and therein lies Morris’s signal achievement—his ability to put his imprint on a program of music without touching an instrument or putting pen to score paper. There was never anyone else quite like Butch Morris, and never will be again, exactly, even in the happy event that his posthumous influence spreads.
“Possible Universe” is a limited-edition Italian import on the NuBop label that might prove difficult to find, but is well worth the effort: It’s available through an online shop in Italy.
Murray’s original recording of “Joanne’s Green Satin Dress” was last issued on a CD on the India Navigation label that now fetches collector’s prices: Available via a third-party seller on Amazon.
Murray’s big band, with Morris conducting, is best heard on an easily obtainable 1992 CD distributed by Sony: Available via a third-party seller on Amazon.
Morris’s very first conduction, “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America” (1985), was documented on a contemporaneous album of the same name: Available via this online marketplace.
Other recommended (and relatively easy-to-find) Morris: “Dust to Dust” (New World): Available through Amazon.
“Nublu Orchestra Conducted by Butch Morris” (Nublu): Available through Amazon.
And, “Conduction #11: Where Music Goes” (New World): Available through Amazon.