[Photo by Efrain Ribeiro]
The year 1971 marked the end of an era. The legendary Royal Theatre was demolished, signaling a shift away from the jazzy nightlife of the surrounding Pennsylvania Avenue Black entertainment district that had thrived for a half century. Since that time, various local jazz venues have come and gone—The New Haven Lounge, Ethel’s Place, The Closet—but Overlea High School’s class of 1971 deserves a shout-out for supplying the symbolic face for a rebooted and evolving jazz scene: Baltimore native Bob Butta on piano.
Over the past half century, Butta has been the go-to local sideman for some of the biggest names in jazz, including saxophonists Mickey Fields, Stanley Turrentine and Junior Cook, as well as trumpeters Bill Hardman, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. This list is just a hint, since a steady stream of notable headliners used to appear at The Closet, impresario Henry Baker’s bygone downtown jazz club which featured Butta’s piano in a 1970s to 1980s smoking house band: Gary Bartz on alto sax, Geoff Harper on acoustic bass and Steve Williams (or Nasar Abadey) on drums.
What prepared Butta to stomp with the big dogs of jazz so soon after high school hijinks? Humble to a fault, an expansive Butta recently told me over lunch at a local eatery, “I was not ready.” Raised by nurturing parents who liked to dance to the swinging rhythm of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Butta and his sister did not come from an otherwise musical family. Noticing his fascination with the sound of an organ, his dad procured a portable Hammond organ for the grade-school Butta, and a lifelong love affair with the keyboard began.
Coincidentally, Butta shares the same birthday (August 16) with old-school piano great Bill Evans, but Butta is the product of a 1960s musical sensibility. Transistor radios, the first toy for listening to music that you could slip into your pocket, presented a smorgasbord of sounds on the AM radio dial. There was rock & roll on the left side of the dial and R&B/soul on the right side. Fusion was on the horizon, and Butta was smitten with bebop upon hearing organ master Jimmy Smith play John Coltrane’s harmonic tour de force, “Impressions.” Composed of mostly self-taught, fledgling musicians—including “organist” Butta—local garage bands proliferated.
In the early 1970s, Butta attended the Essex branch of the Community College of Baltimore County. As fate would have it, a clutch of classical pianists—Arno Drucker, Paul Nitsch and Saul Lilienstein—happened to teach courses at that time on music theory and practice at a highly refined level. Butta became a “sponge” Bob, absorbing lessons on reading and transcribing music, as well as practice and performance techniques. You might say that Bob Butta, the pianist, was born on the Essex campus. On this point and others, Butta elaborates in a long 2021 YouTube interview with saxophonist Antonio Parker which is only a mouse click away (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFM-0ogmXYo).
Over the years, Butta has often made cassette-tape recordings of his live performances, but he’s generally avoided the recording studio. While Amazon lists only one CD credited to Butta— Windows: The Bob Butta Trio (1997)—he has recorded as a sideman on many others. I like Precious Energy, a 1987 live recording from Ethel’s Place, a defunct mid-town bistro operated by the late jazz diva Ethel Ennis, which featured a group led by Gary Bartz (alto sax) and vocalist Leon Thomas. Butta comped and soloed adroitly on “Cousin Mary,” Leon Thomas’s “yodeling” rendition of John Coltrane’s classic straight-ahead tune.
With his customary narrow brim fedora crowning a friendly face above a portly waistline, Butta’s unassuming demeanor contributes to his off-beat sense of humor. For instance, he’s five feet, six inches tall, but drolly claims that he used to be five feet, seven. Spontaneously, Butta heaps praise on the great musicians he’s played with, like tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan (“has his own voice, not hard, not thin; great with Monk tunes”) or alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune (“Coltrane, he comes out of Trane”) or alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt (“like playing with Bird [Charlie Parker]”).
Remarkably, the laid-back Butta once customized a 1997 Pontiac Firebird and raced it himself at the Capitol Raceway in Prince George’s County. Such passion under control also describes Butta’s version of trailblazer Bud Powell’s bebop piano style—uptempo linear improvisation offset by rhythmic counterpoint with both hands busy. Butta acknowledges other piano influences: Charles Covington (a mentor), Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Kelly, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver.
Butta remains an active sideman—averaging six to eight gigs a month—in addition to regular work with trumpeter John Lamkin’s Favorites Jazz Quintet, sizzling local post-boppers with a new CD forthcoming. Like other veterans of the local jazz scene, Lamkin gives Butta props: “He’s one of the best,” said Lamkin. “He came up under the tutelage of [pianist] Charlie Covington [and] he’s created a highly recognizable style that is both harmonically and melodically sound.” A consummate team player, Butta has performed with Lamkin’s group for the past six or seven years, and he’s been the devoted life partner of his wife, Inge, for over forty years.
Butta’s musical footprint is regional. In August, Tacoma Station Tavern, a jazz hot spot in Washington, D.C., feted Butta in a 70th birthday bash that featured a cake, candles and Butta teasing the “Happy Birthday” song by tinkling a few bars in the style of a funeral dirge. On this festive and well-attended occasion, Butta led a spirited quartet—Antonio Parker (sax), Quincy Phillips (drums) and Shawn Simon (bass)—that also included sit-in performances by jazz scene heavyweights vocalist Sharon Clark, drummer Nasar Abadey, and saxophonist Mark Kraemer. As the song title suggests, Kraemer’s uptempo and searching solo on Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” set a particularly apt tone for this sparkling birthday tribute to the quirky Butta.
Butta tells a funny story about opportunity knocking. In the 1980s, he was playing in a New York City jam session when bassist Lonnie Plaxico ran in and said in his ear, “Art Blakey needs a piano player, we’re driving to Canada tonight!” Butta replied, “Can I finish playing this tune first?” When the tune was over, Plaxico and Blakey were already gone.
Art Blakey’s loss was Baltimore’s gain. Ready or not, three cheers for Bob Butta. He can be heard playing often at Baltimore’s Caton Castle, and he has performed at many other venues in the region, including 18th & 21st in Columbia and An die Musik and Keystone Korner in Baltimore.
Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections are archived at reflectionscatoncastle.blogspot.com.