Dr. George Butler: Executive Honor
Elegant. Exemplary. Erudite. Enigmatic. Those four words best describe the late Dr. George Butler, a seminal figure in the rise of the 1980s and ’90s “young lions” movement in jazz. As an executive producer and A&R vice president for jazz and progressive music at Columbia Records, he shepherded the early careers of stars such as Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, and Harry Connick Jr.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of Butler’s greatest coups: Wynton Marsalis’ eponymous debut album. Back in 1982, it was a bold if risky statement for a major label to sponsor a 21-year-old trumpeter and composer who bucked the prevailing jazz-funk fusion trend in favor of blistering acoustic postbop. But the gambit paid off tremendously, catapulting Marsalis into superstardom and gaining him pop-culture name recognition on a par with Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.
The immense influence of Wynton’s debut and subsequent albums paved the way for Butler to sign a legion of other young jazz artists to Columbia, including Joey DeFrancesco, Monte Croft, Nnenna Freelon, Rachel Z, Marlon Jordan, Kent Jordan, Ryan Kisor, Jane Ira Bloom, and Travis Shook. Soon after, other major labels like Warner Bros. and Atlantic followed suit, while iconic jazz imprints such as Blue Note and Verve revitalized themselves by signing more young lions.
Butler had helped change the course of jazz. But then, after retiring from Columbia in the mid-’90s, he seemed to vanish from the world. By the time he died in 2008, his achievements had been reduced to a footnote in comparison to other executives like Bruce Lundvall and Tommy LiPuma. Even today, he remains embarrassingly unsung.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard recorded for Columbia beginning in the mid-’80s (co-leading ensembles with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison) and throughout the ’90s (as both a rising solo artist and acclaimed scorer for Spike Lee’s films). He remembers Butler as “a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.
“[Butler] was a unicorn,” Blanchard says. “His personality was not something that fit the jazz mold. He wasn’t a dude who hung out at the clubs. He did his job, then went home. There was no need for him to sit around with the jazz police to validate his job. So, consequently, you don’t have stories about George being at the Village Vanguard all night long.”
Jazz record industry veteran Al Pryor worked closely with Butler at Columbia in the ’90s and cites him as a mentor, noting that he was one of the few Black jazz executives for a major label. He argues that Butler’s legacy is underacknowledged because he consciously rose above the muck of the cutthroat music business. “I know that this is pure speculation on my part, but sometimes he wasn’t taken seriously because he was always polite,” Pryor says. “He just wouldn’t get down in the gutter the way other people would do in the record industry.”
Ask people who collaborated with Butler what they remember about him, and one thing they’ll often mention first is his sartorial flair. Six feet two inches tall and debonair with an athletic body, Butler knew how to clean up. He had a penchant for wearing expensive cologne, well-tailored suits, and designer shoes with no socks à la Harlem Renaissance writer R. Bruce Nugent. And his mannerisms were just as posh as his threads.
“He was an impeccable dresser. That had an impact on both me and Wynton,” Branford Marsalis says. “Just to see a brother in an executive position, dressing that sharply and with confidence.”
“He was so immaculate in the way that he carried himself and in the way that he spoke,” Harry Connick Jr. says. “I remember having a trench coat on and I had it buckled. He said, ‘Don’t buckle it. Just tie it once through in a knot.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because that’s not how you’re supposed to wear it.’ He always looked like he was coming out of the pages of GQ.”
Butler’s natty taste carried over into the way many of his artists dressed during performances and photo shoots. Sandra Trim-DaCosta, who worked with Butler at Columbia as the director of artist development and marketing, says that his style had an immense influence on the look of jazz’s young lions.
“George played a role in helping the guys get their looks together,” Trim-Da Costa says. “He worked closely with them in terms of imaging and putting together the fashion piece for the album covers … so that they would be taken seriously as jazz musicians in the industry.”
Arrival at Columbia
Butler joined Columbia’s staff in 1978, after establishing a trailblazing career at Blue Note Records, where he’d been the label’s president (the only Black person ever to have that job) for six years. Under his leadership, Blue Note released numerous jazz-funk and fusion gems, signing a litany of crossover stars that included flutist Bobbi Humphrey, saxophonist Ronnie Laws, organist Ronnie Foster, violinist Noel Pointer, and guitarist Earl Klugh. It was during Butler’s tenure at Blue Note that the Mizell Brothers arguably defined the sound of that era with top-selling (and still highly regarded) LPs by Humphrey and trumpeter Donald Byrd.
It’s also important to note that when Butler signed Klugh to Blue Note, he arranged for Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen to produce the guitarist’s 1976 eponymous debut. The album became a momentous success—and set the stage for Grusin and Rosen to formalize their production team and eventually start their own label, GRP.
“George had a few home runs at Blue Note before he left,” says veteran producer and music historian Michael Cuscuna. “But because the label at the time was in such huge financial turmoil, I don’t think he saw much more of a future there.”
Butler’s arrival at Columbia occurred around the time the record industry was hitting rock bottom. By the summer of 1979, there were reports of slumping sales, massive returns of unsold records by retail outlets, and a rise in blank cassette tape sales as listeners were increasingly making their own recordings of LPs and radio shows. An August 1979 New York Times article reported that after CBS Records—Columbia’s parent company—laid off 52 people due to financial woes during its first quarter of that year, it triggered staff reductions by nearly all the other major labels.
“Columbia Records at that time was absolutely the largest record company in America,” Cuscuna says. “In terms of promotion and A&R, [it] was the Rolls-Royce of the record industry.”
Bruce Lundvall was still head of the jazz department when Butler came onboard. He’d previously signed Dexter Gordon to the label after helping orchestrate the tenor titan’s historic return to the U.S. from Europe, sowing seeds for what would later become an acoustic postbop renaissance. Lundvall had also signed alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, the Heath Brothers, and trumpeters Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard. Cuscuna says that during the time Butler and Lundvall were a team (before the latter left Columbia in 1982 to spearhead Elektra Records’ jazz subsidiary label Musician), Butler didn’t deal with much of the mighty jazz roster that was already in place at Columbia. But there was one major exception.
Miles Davis had withdrawn from the music industry in the mid-’70s. Butler was determined to get him out of retirement. He would visit Miles nearly every weekday at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, talk with him, and listen to the little motifs Davis was tinkering with on a broken piano.
Pryor, who says that Butler had perfect pitch and near-total recall of music, remembers the executive telling him how he understood what Miles was aiming for in these musical ideas. “Miles would play things on a piano that had missing keys,” he says. “But George could still hear the music correctly in his head by simply watching Miles’ fingering on the instrument.”
The broken piano didn’t stick around long once Butler started visiting. For Miles’ birthday, Butler convinced Lundvall and Columbia to purchase him a $100,000 Steinway.
Cuscuna recalls: “George told me, ‘The core basis of my relationship with Miles is clothes. We would get on the phone and talk about clothes for an hour.’ That was his door in.” Butler proceeded to work with Miles on his 1981 comeback album The Man with the Horn.
After reigniting Miles’ career, Butler’s next significant win at Columbia was with Wynton Marsalis, who had instigated a bidding war among the labels because of his blistering virtuosity with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Herbie Hancock’s V.S.O.P. group.
There’s some disagreement as to who actually signed Marsalis. According to Dan Ouellette’s book Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear, it was Lundvall, while Wynton himself says that it was Butler. “George was the first one to get the ball rolling,” Cuscuna explains. “Then he got distracted with other things, so Bruce had to step in to help close that deal.”
Once Marsalis joined the label, Butler nudged the trumpeter to go in a direction similar to that of GRP’s trumpet star Tom Browne, maker of jazz-funk classics like 1981’s “Thighs High (Grip Your Hips and Move).” Wynton, however, balked.
“I’d played in funk bands,” Marsalis says, “so it wasn’t that I didn’t like funk music. I like funk. But jazz-funk was always kinda funky. There’s a big difference between something like Parliament-Funkadelic and Ramsey Lewis. I was really strong-minded; I’d just come from the South. I didn’t know all the politics about the music industry. I just knew that I wanted to play jazz and do something that would make my daddy proud. That was more important to me.”
Butler already had someone in mind to produce Marsalis’ debut, but the New Orleans-bred trumpeter insisted on getting Hancock to produce it. And it was Hancock who encouraged Butler to allow Marsalis to make the album of his choice.
Trim-DaCosta says that Butler was a “visionary” who could envision artists’ full potential, make them more commercially viable, and set them apart from the pack. “When Wynton performed at the  Grammy Awards show, he played jazz and classical. That was a unique concept that George came up with,” she says. “It was about showing his true virtuosity. That was the beginning of people paying more attention to Wynton as a serious musician. George always saw the future of the jazz talent, which was beyond what they could even envision for themselves.”
“[George] is the reason I played classical music,” Marsalis confirms. “He heard a recording of me playing a Vivaldi trumpet concerto. He suggested that I make a classical album. George was always a tremendous advocate for me. It makes me think about it even more in light of how contentious our relationship could be. I never disrespected him; let me make this clear. That’s because of my upbringing. We could disagree. But when it came to him advocating for me, he advocated for me.”
And yet, for all Butler’s strong advocacy of Marsalis, the trumpeter claims that Butler wasn’t the biggest fan of his jazz music. “If I have to be honest, George really didn’t like a lot of the music that I recorded, but he supported it. Philosophically, we were not on the same page at all. But George always treated me with love.”
Most artists who worked with Butler, however, claim that he was incredibly supportive of artists making their own choices. “George would pretty much let you make any kind of record that you wanted to make,” Branford Marsalis says. “If you wanted to make a jazz record, he’ll let you do that. If you wanted to make a jazz R&B record, he’ll let you do that. I always appreciated that.”
Butler’s next big move at Columbia was signing Harry Connick Jr. By then, he’d begun mining New Orleans for young jazz talent: Wynton’s brother Branford, the Jordan brothers, Blanchard, Harrison. He’d also cultivated a relationship with pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who recommended Connick. In 1983, the piano prodigy won a competition in Kansas City hosted by the National Association of Jazz Educators. He was only 15. That’s when he first met Butler. “He said, ‘I’ve heard about you. When you get to New York, give me a call,’” Connick remembers. “That was the most exciting thing anyone had ever said to me then.”
When he reached 18, Connick moved to New York and called Butler’s office every day for about six months. He would go to the Columbia Records building and sit in the lobby, watching people go in and out. “He seemed to never have time for me,” Connick says. “Then one day he said, ‘Come on in. How would you like to be a part of the Columbia Records family?’ I almost completely lost it.”
Connick says that Butler provided some guidance for his 1987 Columbia debut. He knew that Connick was also a crooner but insisted that he not sing on the album in order to establish him first as a commanding jazz pianist. (He also wanted Connick to drop the “Jr.,” arguing that he had too many names for consumers to remember; Harry insisted on keeping it.) For 1988’s follow-up 20, Butler arranged guest appearances from singer Carmen McCrae, bassist Bob Hurst, and fellow New Orleans pianist/singer Dr. John—all of Connick’s choosing. That album highlighted his fetching vocals, which transformed him into a breakout jazz star with pop appeal. 20 climbed to No. 6 on Billboard’s jazz charts and went platinum.
From there, Butler allowed Connick to map out his own trajectory to fame. “The great thing about George was that he stayed out of the way. He let me do my thing, and made sure that the record got made,” Connick says. “That’s what a great A&R person is supposed to do.”
Butler’s jazz advocacy extended into higher education, particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Butler himself was an HBCU product, having earned his bachelor’s degree in music from Howard University; he continued his studies at Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree in music education.
According to Pryor, Butler was still at Columbia in the early ’60s, aiming for a doctorate, when his doctoral advisor introduced him to Mike Stewart from United Artists Records. Leaping at the chance to work at that label as a record producer, he switched career trajectories. While at UA he produced easy-listening LPs by the likes of Ferrante & Teicher and Shirley Bassey. In the early ’70s, he moved over to Blue Note, which was then distributed by United Artists. (He began using the “Dr.” salutation after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina.)
Paula Potts, a close confidante to Butler, explains that he understood the power of education, especially for the upward financial mobility of Black people. “Education meant everything to him,” she says. “He tried to work with people who were educated, and he encouraged them to become educators while also being artists.”
As acting director of the Triangle Association of Colleges when Butler was at Blue Note, Potts would work with him to bring jazz musicians to HBCUs. “A lot of that stuff was way out of our budget, but George could make it happen because he had the power of the pen,” she remembers. “He could get the big company executive to do things that he wanted them to do. It was really a pipe dream to bring Ramsey Lewis, Noel Pointer, and all those cats to these underfunded little colleges. George cared enough about the smaller HBCUs that I was working for to entertain the idea of bringing big jazz acts so that the students could enjoy those opportunities.”
Butler’s collaboration with HBCUs continued at Columbia Records. Wynton Marsalis also praises him in this regard: “He was an advocate for the music in non-musical environments. Work in a Black university and try to get something done; you’re going to struggle. With George being in jazz, it was always uphill because Black people didn’t support the music. All through the ’80s, my whole thing was harping on ‘Let’s get on Black radio.’ And somehow we were doing that, even though it was a hard environment to be in. George made significant inroads for jazz on that front.”
But for all of Butler’s ubiquity on the jazz and educational scenes, he was inscrutable about his private life. Many colleagues with whom he worked for years claim they never knew that he was married or had a daughter, Bethany Butler. That includes Potts, who accompanied Butler to many professional functions. “I didn’t ask personal questions,” she says. “I instinctively knew that he didn’t want to answer personal questions. I think George had secrets that he carried to his grave.”
Butler was born on September 2, 1931, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both of his parents were college graduates. His mother taught elementary school and his father played “boogie-woogie” piano, according to Butler’s younger sister and only sibling, Jacqueline Hairston, who describes him as “very playful” and someone who loved to play basketball. The family lived on the west side of Charlotte, where most “hard-working black families lived.” Both children took piano lessons; George focused on jazz while Jacqueline leaned toward classical music. “One of his favorite pastimes, when no one was around, was to imitate the playing style of Erroll Garner,” Hairston says.
She believes that Butler kept his private life so guarded out of deep-seated impostor’s syndrome. “George didn’t want anyone knowing that he had fears about being a success in the big city, where he could be criticized,” she says. “Plus, he had to prove to mother and dad back home that he could make a go of it because he still saw himself as this boy from small-town North Carolina, who was uncertain about his own musical prowess.”
In 1987, as Columbia’s young lions flourished, Sony purchased CBS Records for $2 billion in cash. Soon after, Butler became senior vice-president of jazz at Columbia/Sony. He continued making strides with the lions, as well as with more pop-leaning acts such as saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. and Kirk Whalum.
Some say, though, that Sony’s arrival was the beginning of the end for Butler’s reign. “It was a very tricky time at Columbia,” pianist/composer Rachel Z says. “There was a nice stable of jazz artists there. But with Sony’s takeover, the bean counters started giving him more oversight than he was used to. He was holding strong for maybe two years after that takeover, I believe. When the bean counters started coming in, it just gave other people, who wanted to take over, an opportunity.”
Blanchard claims that Butler shielded his jazz artists from many of the struggles he fought with upper management over promotional and marketing support. “You could see the writing on the wall. They were trying to push these other guys in,” Blanchard says, alluding to Kevin Gore, who became vice president of jazz, promotion, and marketing; Steve Berkowitz, Sony Legacy vice president of A&R; and Seth Rothstein, marketing director for Legacy.
“It’s like anything else—something became successful, then someone else wants to bring in their own people to take advantage of it. There were a couple of other guys who were lobbying for George’s position. They were the guys who would go hang out with Don Ienner, who was Columbia Records’ president at that time. It was really rough seeing some of the younger people try to undercut George through the some of the decisions they were making.”
Doug Wilkins worked with Butler for nine years as CBS Records’ national director of jazz marketing and promotion. “There were a lot of questions when Kevin Gore came aboard,” he says. “We used to always talk about jazz as being a Black form of music. So George felt threatened when someone other than Black came in and tried to spearhead the direction of the artists.”
People who worked with him sensed Butler’s frustration, but because of his quiet demeanor, he hardly expressed his bitterness in public. Also, he was basically a loner. “George’s final days at Columbia Records were not pretty,” says Carl Griffin, who was senior VP of A&R at GRP Records throughout the ’90s and mid-aughts. “He didn’t have allies. They were pushing George to the sides. Kevin became the voice of jazz at Sony because he had allies. George was in a tenuous position because he didn’t know how to fight that dirty fight.”
“[George] was of that second generation of Black [record] executives that had a lot of scar tissue,” Wynton Marsalis adds.
“Things got cloudy in the early ’90s,” Cuscuna recalls. “George wasn’t doing much. He was at the company every day, but he wasn’t as active soliciting and signing artists. Most of the jazz activity started going through Steve Berkowitz and Kevin Gore. I would ask them what George was doing and people would say, ‘Oh, I do know. He has some personal issues going on. He’s just not himself right now.’ I don’t know what that meant. But he was on a decline as an active career person.”
Gore and Berkowitz were not available for interviews.
Some of Butler’s “personal issues” may have been caused by the early onset of what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. After his mid-’90s retirement from Columbia, he tried, unsuccessfully, to start his own label. As the disease progressed, he moved to a retirement home in Hayward, California, to be near his sister. In January 2008, he went missing for 36 hours. The weather was cold and rainy; he was found near a creek bed, entangled upside down in some bushes. Four months after that incident, on April 9, Butler died at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, California. He was 76.
Afterward, his name nearly faded into obscurity. “He is one of the most unsung people in the jazz world,” Wilkins says. “When he passed away there was not a lot of fanfare. I thought at that time that the label would have given him a bigger tribute, because he was quite the accomplished person in the way that he conducted himself.”
“I say this about all A&R guys: If you have a .500 batting average, you’re phenomenal,” Cuscuna adds. “George had certain home runs that weren’t just home runs; they were home runs with the bases loaded and the ball went outside the stadium and into the parking lot.”
A CHAMPION FOR WOMEN
Even though the young lions of the ’80s and ’90s were very much a boy’s club, especially on the instrumental side, Butler recognized the talents of women musicians. At Blue Note, he’d signed Bobbi Humphrey and pianist Barbara Carroll; at Columbia, he brought soprano saxophonist/flutist Hilary Schmidt, violinist Sonya Robinson, soprano/alto saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, singer Nnenna Freelon, and pianists Aziza Mustafa Zadeh and Rachel Z onboard.
Bloom, who’d already released several albums before signing with Columbia, remembers Butler as being a “class act” and regards him as “one of the last great A&R men in jazz. … The tone of our conversations was always about music. George was very curious about the fact that I was using live electronics from the perspective of a jazz improviser.”
When it came time to record her 1987 Columbia debut Modern Drama, Bloom was one of the label’s few new jazz signees allowed to manage their own budget as a producer. She was also allowed to record with pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Ratzo Harris, drummer Tom Rainey, and vibraphonist David Friedman—musicians with whom she’d already developed a rapport.
“[Butler] recognized me as a woman playing an instrument largely associated with men,” Bloom recalls. “He heard something special in my music, and he wasn’t afraid to get behind it.”
Rachel Z recalls a similar experience when she signed with the label for her 1993 debut Trust the Universe. Butler “knew that it would be a little hard for me being a woman in jazz,” she says. “But we really never spoke about that. He just acted on respecting me as a musician. In that way, he nurtured my talent. He set my expectations high and got me to believe in myself. He was always positioning me to the best of his abilities for me to perform in really high places.”
by John Murph