Kendrick Lamar performed at the 2016 Grammys, sending a message to every American watching: Music has soul, history, and must provoke the status quo in order to bring awareness and start a dialogue about societal problems. The performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” off his Grammy-winning album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” succeeded in bringing back into the mainstream a different type of hip-hop—the kind that makes people uncomfortable. And at its core of musicality: the heart and soul of jazz.
Blending jazz and hip-hop is not new, according to musician Keith Butler Jr. Butler is the drummer and namesake for local jazz outfit, Keith Butler Trio, which plays Burnt Mill Creek every Wednesday for jazz night. “Cats like Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, Gerald Clayton and many others are fusing the two styles and adding layers to the genre,” Butlers says. “Hip-hop is changing jazz, in that the generation that grew up on hip-hop in the ‘80s and ‘90s is the generation currently leading the charge in jazz.”
Both genres began gaining popularity in times of flux. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, people wanted their voices to be heard, and what better place than on a stage? Art Blakey recorded several worldbeat jazz albums, such as “Holiday for Skins,” “The African Beat,” “Orgy in Rhythm,” which are great examples of how the genre pushed for the development of black cultural nationalism—even before the rise of Black Power. Still, today, it resonates.
“Look up John Coltrane’s tune, ‘Alabama,’ and when you listen to it, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is about today,’” he says. The song was written in response to the burning of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. “What musicians were talking about in the ‘50s and ‘60s is the same in 2016, so let’s bring it on back,” Butler notes.
Keith Butler Trio’s weekly gig has Burnt Mill Creek buzzing. Crowds of all ages and backgrounds fill up the venue around 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m. every Wednesday. The musicians feed off the crowd and each other; the rhythm seems to elevate at each new solo, until the music stops. They play jazz standards, like “Caravan” by Duke Ellington and “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis. Yet, they always approach the music differently. “We might play a song one week, and then play it the next, and people may not recognize it,” Butler explains.
Oftentimes, guest musicians sit in to play with the trio. Last March, when reshoots for “Bolden” were being filmed in Wallace Park, Delfeayo Marsalis (yes, of the famed Marsalis brothers), sat in on trombone. Local jazz stalwart Benny Hill joined in, too, and somehow Burnt Mill Creek felt like a hideaway on a New York City street where jazz greats sneak in for a spell.
Butler’s love for jazz can be attributed to Hill. In 2009 Butler attended the Benny Hill Quartet reunion at UNCW in Kenan Auditorium. He remembers Hill playing “Sing a Song of a Song” by Kenny Garrett, who played with Duke Ellington Orchestra and Miles Davis. Butler was hooked.
Though Butler has drummed with bands locally, like Justin Lacy and the Swimming Machine, Onward, Soldiers, and Mike Blair and the Stonewalls, he formed the trio in 2014. It grew out of Butler’s hip-hop group, Temple5, and includes Cameron Tinklenberg on keys and Sean Howard on bass. Lately, Danny Louis Thomas has been joining in on the mic, rapping and elevating the music beyond its smooth winding roots, and touching on the popularity Kendrick Lamar has cornerstoned in the current music industry.
“People like Kendrick Lamar aren’t afraid . . . to speak their mind, and I think that’s what it takes,” Butler says— “people unapologetically putting good music out there.”
Now a music genre which once had a select audience is growing and evolving. Locally, it’s expanding, too, even if slowly.
“A lot of places in town are not quiet places suitable for listening to jazz, but there are a couple of good spots,” Butler says. “The Rusty Nail is one place where people come to really listen to the music. The crowd responds appropriately and honors the music. The Cameron Art Museum brings a similar audience.”
The Keith Butler Trio wants to keep spreading the music, and paying proper respect to its history and the people who played before them. It’s what they strive to communicate every time they take the stage.
“Most problems I have as a jazz musician are self inflicted,” Butler tells. “We can be our worst critics at times. I struggle with the public perception of jazz music. It’s too often seen as a background music. The message I want to get across by playing is that this music is beautiful.”