Butch Morris: Feb. 10, 1947-Jan. 29, 2013

Jazz musician created his own system of live-music performance

Butch Morris: Feb. 10, 1947-Jan. 29, 2013
Illustration by Shan Stumpf

[As is our tradition, we’ve profiled some of the lesser-known individuals we lost in 2013 – people who, through their contributions to our culture, left this world a better place than they found it.]

In 1985, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, composer and jazz musician, directed his first “conduction.” That term, shorthand for “conducted improvisation,” was one he sought and received a trademark for – a new musical, rather than thermal-energy, application.

You could initially reference Butch Morris as a uniquely voiced New York cornetist for Loft Jazz-era reedmen Frank Lowe and David Murray in the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, record collectors of this post-free jazz scene started witnessing the Morris name out front as a conductor, starting with violinist Billy Bang’s Outline No. 12 record. A larger discipline was set in motion, taking listeners years to completely grasp.

This music-composition method Morris created, a way of presenting Morris’ own variation on a live music performance, he described as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.” The Morris conduction combined the techniques of centuries-old European classical music and jazz with, consciously or unconsciously, the concepts of consumer electronics. Most notable was that for most of the three decades of conductions, there was no preconceived source material. Morris commandeered his musicians’ improvised gestures during each performance and directed them into set-long temporal compositions. No repeat performance, no greatest hits shows and no classic album tours.

1985’s Conduction No. 1 – provocatively titled “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America” – featured burgeoning New York downtown scenemakers including reedist John Zorn and turntablist Christian Marclay. No. 1, like most conductions, sounded far more like a new strain of modern classical music than jazz improvisation. The recorded outcomes of Morris’ numerically ascending conductions often float like the fantasias of the Renaissance era, imitative of voices while introducing various tempos and clashing harmonies.

Though he’s not widely remembered as an arranger, Morris, in effect, was a live mix editor: choosing which spontaneous figures would get mirrored, modified, discarded or saved for later usage by a series of baton and hand signals. Morris’ imitation of electronic memory (or sampling) was a gesture to the head and a number signal. A musician’s riff or an entire conducted section might get a number and return later in the performance as a repeat or counterpoint to another idea.

A little more than a year before his passing from lung cancer, Morris visited the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach as a board member of their national council. Morris showed no outward signs of finality. He buoyantly described his happiness with his newest conduction music and their residency site – the Pan Asian-themed drag cabaret restaurant Lucky Cheng’s in midtown Manhattan. Like his works, the conversation was strictly about discovery and forward motion.

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