Remembering Butch Morris best known for his conductions

Text by Matt Cole

The world lost an outstanding and original musician yesterday when conductor, composer, cornetist, educator, and writer Lawrence “Butch” Morris passed away a few weeks shy of his 66th birthday. Morris got his start as a cornetist in the ’70s, playing with saxophonist David Murray, and others, but is best known for his conductions, live conducted improvisations of often large ensembles, in which he created compositions in real time by directing musicians (and/or poets) with a set of several dozen hand signs and gestures. Morris developed this system (which he has described as an exploration of the overlapping space between improvisation and composition) as an outgrowth of an attempt to devise a more flexible musical notation.

Over a 25+ year span, Morris taught and conducted over 5,000 musicians in 200 or so conductions in New York, Europe, South America, and Asia; often the concerts followed intensive workshops. Morris also wrote about his conduction and musical philosophy in a complex, information-rich style that reminds me of none other than R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome. In addition, Morris had, from time to time, some ongoing projects which included the Chorus of Poets, the Lucky Cheng Orchestra, and the Nublu Orchestra.

It was in the latter that I had the privilege of playing about two dozen shows from 2010-2012 on bari sax. It was a very challenging situation, as one has to focus one’s eyes constantly on Butch, while listening intently to the rest of the band and being ready to follow his signals or add one’s own ideas to the mix at any time, and Butch was a very demanding, intense, and sometimes difficult and irascible bandleader. Not everyone meshed with his style. But his intensity was always in service of making the music better, and pushing the performer to overcome his or her own perceived limitations.