I’m on a train from Washington DC to New York, listening to ‘The Long Goodbye’, a brash, shimmering piece for vibraphone, reeds and electric guitar by the cornetist and composer Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris, who just died of cancer, at 65. ‘The Long Goodbye’ appears on his record Dust to Dust, a series of pieces that Morris composed and conducted. Or rather, pieces that he composed in real time while conducting improvising musicians. He called them ‘conductions’.
He made hundreds of them, working with jazz and classical musicians, with instrumentalists and vocalists, in the United States, Europe and Istanbul, where he lived for part of the 1990s. I heard my first conduction at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park, on a summer day in the late 1990s. Butch put on a scratchy Charlie Parker record, and conducted his ensemble in what sounded like bird calls. The scratches were a reminder of the time that had passed since Parker’s death; the chirps evoked his nickname. It wasn’t anything you’d recognise as jazz, but Morris’s concerto for birdsong and turntable said more about Parker’s ghost than anything else I heard that day.
Butch could often be seen strolling and looking around the East Village, sometimes with his friend the artist David Hammons, or with the saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill. He cut a vaguely professorial figure, with his wire-rimmed spectacles, salt-and-pepper beard and unfailingly elegant outfits. Late in his life, he had a regular gig at Nublu, a club on Avenue C, but his New York appearances, before then, were few and far between: like many great black American musicians in the avant-garde tradition, he found a more receptive audience in Europe. But Butch was very much a child of the New York loft scene of the 1970. That scene has lost some of its greatest players in the last year: the violinist Billy Bang and the reedmen Sam Rivers (who ran Studio Rivbea with his wife Beatrice) and David S. Ware. Butch took the spirit of the loft into the concert hall with wit and invention.