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Remembering Butch Morris, The Man Who Conducted Improvisation

Butch Morris leads a conduction at the 2007 Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia.
Samir Ljuma for NPR
Butch Morris leads a conduction at the 2007 Skopje Jazz Festival in Macedonia.

The jazz musician Butch Morris was beloved by his fellow musicians and acclaimed by critics and fans for his ability to conduct improvisation. While that may sound like a contradiction, Morris pulled it off — with jazz musicians and symphony orchestras around the world.

A resident of New York City, he died yesterday in a Brooklyn hospital of cancer. He was 65 years old.

Lawrence Douglas "Butch" Morris was a Vietnam War veteran and an experimental cornet player when he arrived in New York City from California in the late 1970s. With his friend, saxophonist David Murray, he developed a style which was dubbed "avant-gutbucket."

But in 1985 Morris introduced a new approach to music, with far-reaching implications. Conduction, he called it, a method of composing by conducting. He used well-defined hand gestures to summon sounds from musicians, singers and sometimes poets, too, as he told NPR's News and Notes in 2008.

"I teach a vocabulary to an ensemble, but we don't rehearse the music we're going to perform," he said. "The performance is really an instant of composition, in many ways ... I realized there is a great divide between what is notated and what is improvised and I wanted to discover, to understand what that divide was."

Seldom using scores or pre-conceived motifs, Morris constructed spontaneous compositions from what his ensembles came up with in response to his cues. Here's Morris in a rehearsal, captured in the documentary about him, Black February: Music Is An Open Door.

"I need your creative ability and some fantasy," Morris said. "The music needs some fantasy. I don't want this to be in any way random, I'll give you some info, and you'll have to put your horns to your lips or your strings to the bow, because the next thing is going to be the downbeat, and that's when everything happens."

Morris made music happen with ensembles of every type, all over the world. He worked with classical musicians for whom any sort of improvisation was a foreign language. He worked with free jazz musicians who balk at following any rules. He worked with groups that used instruments of their native lands. He didn't care about boundaries or labels.

"I'm a jazz musician — I know what I am," he said. "Whether the music you think I'm playing or professing is jazz or not is not my problem, you know what I mean? I do conduction. And it doesn't matter whether I do it with classical musicians or jazz musicians or traditional Japanese instruments, Korean instruments, Turkish instruments, it doesn't matter, this is what I do."

When he conducted, musicians poured forth their personal sounds, became expansive upon command, provided counterpoint, recapitulated. The results were works that were always fresh, new and unrepeatable. Even when he wrote beautiful melodies, he treated them as raw materials, useful for orchestration in the moment.

His influence has spread widely. Today, many musicians try to do what Butch Morris started, though seldom with equal results.

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Howard Mandel