Frank Butler / Feb 18, 1928 - July 24, 1984

When a pre-fame Fela Kuti took his Koola Lobitos band to the USA in 1969, they ended up stranded in Los Angeles, working nightclubs into 1970. There they took in the Black Power movement, and the politicized perspective being away from home helped radicalize Fela, who was just another black nobody in L.A. dealing with the struggle but trying to keep moving forward. But his drummer and future musical director, Tony Allen (the man who would co-create the Afrobeat sound), took even more back to Nigeria with him. He learned how to play with looser wrists, more touching than hitting and as Tony mentions in his autobiography, studying with Los Angeles-based jazz drummer Frank Butler provided him with "the final piece of the puzzle that just made everything catch on fire." Given that Allen is one of the greatest and most original sounding drumkit stylists to ever walk the planet, that is high praise.

Of course Butler didn't play Afrobeat (although he did sit in on some blues tunes with Koola Lobitos) but Tony often mentions him as the biggest game-changer in the completion of Allen's own sound and style. To this very day when the now 76-year old keeps in better shape than all the young drummers that come out bashing from the first song, Allen tells of how the lighter touch and letting the sticks just bounce themselves off the kit helps him retain his energy enough to still play marathon sets at his advanced age. He learned that from Butler.

Allen: "Jazz was the thing that enlightened me so much. And Frank Butler came into my life just like somebody who could let me go back home with something extra...None of those other drummers could touch me now!"

If you think this is starting to sound like a piece about Tony Allen and not Frank Butler, I completely apologize. Butler is rather underknown and there is not too much info out there about him, other than listening to his fine solos on several West Coast jazz records. He is certainly well-regarded by musicians and critics as a masterful technician of subtle shifts in his hits while keeping impeccable time. He shows restraint as an accompanist and shines brilliantly on his solos, his drums perfectly tuned.

He was born in Kansas City but was a steady on the West Coast scene by the '50s and played with many local legends: Dave Brubeck, Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Sonny Criss, Curtis Counce, Elmo Hope, Gerald Wilson, Bobby Hutcherson, Harold Land, Ben Webster, Leroy Vinnegar and others. He has also recorded with Miles Davis, Red Garland, Dizzy Gillespie and others, and he played with John Coltrane on several occasions when Elvin Jones was unavailable. He did some television work and played in Perez Prado's group, as well as a mid-'50s stint in the Duke Ellington orchestra.

A bad heroin problem took him off the scene for awhile and he didn't get too well known due to not being in NYC and not putting out too many records as a leader. In this regard he was at his best in the late '70s, with a clutch of excellent records for Xanadu. He passed away at just 56.

My appreciation of jazz came from the '60s free-jazz scenes of NYC and Chicago, so it took me a bit later to go backwards to the '50s and Westward to Los Angeles. But there was a vibrant scene there that Butler was a major part of. Butler's work on record with Trane was the first stuff I ever heard (he can be found on Kulu Sé Mama and Selflessness) but hearing Allen rave about him made me further investigate.

Check him out on the perhaps appropriately titled Smack Up, a 1960 session led by Art Pepper:

And here's a selection from a fine record under Butler's leadership, the 1980 joint Wheelin' & Dealin':


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