Ethnomusicologist Melvin Butler studies the music of his childhood.
Photo by Stephanie Gross.
As a young saxophone player in New York, Melvin Butler led something of a double life.
“I would play at a blues club Saturday night and then be sitting at the [church] organ Sunday morning. I was not quite comfortable juggling these things,” he says. The juggling act sometimes meant arriving home from a gig at 5 a.m. and getting up a couple of hours later to face the new day.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Butler was working part time on a master’s in performance at New York University. He appeared with jazz vocalist Betty Carter at Carnegie Hall and played gigs as a side man, not just with jazz groups but also with Caribbean and especially Haitian konpa (commercial dance music) bands.
“That exposed me to a culture I’d never been exposed to,” says Butler, who grew up in Kansas City.
But his life as a performer conflicted with the beliefs of many of his fellow Pentecostals, who discourage what is deemed worldly music. He began to feel a tension between his spiritual life and his professional life.
Butler stayed at NYU but switched his focus from performance to ethnomusicology; he wrote his dissertation on the music and religious practices of Haitian, Jamaican and African-American Pentecostal congregations.
“As I get older and now that I’m more settled down, I wear my jazz career more as a loose garment, so to speak. I’m more committed to academia and my spiritual life,” says Butler, an assistant professor of music at U.Va.
Living in Greenwich Village but attending church in Brooklyn, Butler found “all these black ethnicities in one locale,” each very different from the other. “All black churches are not alike,” he adds.
Butler illustrates his point with a story about his wife, Lori. A pastor’s daughter from Charlotte, she was starting college at Berklee and looking for a church in Boston. By chance, she picked a church with a Caribbean congregation; it was so different from what she was used to that she called home in tears and wanted to pack her bags and flee.
“There are many differences among the many black ethnicities that coexist in the United States,” Butler says, and those differences play out in church and in music.
The spring semester finds him teaching a class on African-American gospel music, the music he grew up listening to on vinyl at home. “How much better can it be than to study that which one has a passion for?” he says.
Gospel music is greatly understudied, Butler believes, both because black music is often depicted as lacking in refinement and “something not worthy of scholarly attention” and because of its Christian message.
“This is a kind of coming home for me in a way. Now I’m teaching about the music that’s closest to my heart and closest to my own personal experience,” he says. “African-American gospel music is fascinating. It is not only a religious expression but also a cultural expression. It’s part of the African-American identity.”
He hopes African-American students will see the course as speaking to their experience.
“What a privilege,” he marvels. “As the first person in my family to graduate from college, I’ve been blessed to get a Ph.D. and to have this wonderful job that allows me to work with young people and be a role model. It’s a ministry of sorts.”