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Butch Thompson, a Minnesota jazz classic for the ages

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Butch Thompson
Butch Thompson plays a tune on his Steinway piano at his home in St. Paul, Minn. July 30, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Seventh-grader Butch Thompson faced the talent show crowd at Stillwater Junior High. Nearly paralyzed by stage fright, he banged out a boogie-woogie piano version of "Rock Around the Clock" and hoped for the best.

"I got through it all right and they just went wild — the kids," Thompson recalled. "That may have been the reason I became a professional musician, because that was great."

The Stillwater audience lit a fire that day under 13-year-old Thompson. 

The shy kid from Marine-on-St. Croix who played Gene Autry 45s and learned boogie-woogie piano from books his mother brought home, loved the performance rush. It launched a career that would take him from a small town band to New Orleans jazz and back to St. Paul, where his frequent appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion" made him one of Minnesota's best-known musicians.

In the decades between came performances, played and heard, that shaped a life in music.

His childhood fascination with cowboy tunes gave way to New Orleans-style jazz after Thompson's father took him to a Louis Armstrong concert at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. He was struck by a woman in the seat behind him who whispered, "Beautiful" after hearing Armstrong's band played "Stardust."

In high school he formed a band called Shirt Thompson and his Sleeves. A few years later, after a pilgrimage to New Orleans' famed Preservation Hall, he knew the music he wanted to play. "When they started playing. . . that was the end of it, anything else, I really got it," he said.

Butch Thompson in the Hall Brothers Jazz Band
Butch Thompson playing clarinet in the Hall Brothers Jazz Band playing at Diamond Jim's Theatre in the early 1960s.
Courtesy Butch Thompson

Thompson became a full-fledged performer in 1962. The Hall Brothers, a Twin Cities traditional jazz group, hired him to play clarinet.

In those days, he said, jazz musicians often found work at the hard-luck strip joints and bars on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

The drinking age was 21 and Thompson was not, so the band leader created a kind of temporary foster care document that allowed him to perform.

"And that letter was written and signed by my parents and by the management of Brady's Bar and it went into the safe into the back room," he said. "But nobody ever asked."

After a stint in the military and with a degree from the University of Minnesota, Thompson needed a job. He was playing some but it wasn't paying the bills.

He took a job as a sports reporter for a time and tried to balance the newspaper job with performing, which included a new musical opportunity -- a chance to be part of a live radio show.

Thompson knew Garrison Keillor from their days together as students at the U of M.

Butch Thompson on the clarinet
Butch Thompson on the clarinet playing with the Hall Brothers Jazz Band.
Courtesy Butch Thompson

In 1974, he performed on one of the first broadcasts of "A Prairie Home Companion" and became a regular on the show. The early shows included lots of unrehearsed performances. 

Thompson came late to one broadcast because of his other job. He walked out on stage as Keillor was introducing him.

"He turned to me and said, 'What are you going to play?'  I said, 'Nothing.  Why not?  Well, the piano's locked.'"

Thompson counts Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong and the street musicians of Quito, Ecuador among his influences and icons. Traditional New Orleans style jazz has many influences including music from Latin America.

During a visit to Ecuador he listened to street musicians playing folk songs for tips. Then he heard a tune Jelly Roll Morton created from the some of the same melodies. Thompson's version of a tune called Asolas is influenced by the Ecuadorean music. 

Thompson, who lives in St. Paul, tours regularly in Europe where jazz has always been popular. The music is attracting younger performers in this country, he adds.

Thompson, who is 69, says he'll keep playing as long as he can.

"I know how powerful this music is, this stuff from New Orleans, and I know if you get a good band together and play the music right you're going to please people, that's what it's all about for me and I've been lucky enough to be able to do it," he said. "That's as good as it gets for me."