Butch Thompson, jazz pianist with 'A Prairie Home Companion' dies

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

Butch Thompson’s spritely piano playing entertained audiences around the world and charmed fellow musicians. Thompson, the original pianist on “A Prairie Home Companion” passed away this week at the age 78.

Butch Thompson’s love of performing started when he entered a talent competition at Stillwater Junior High. In an interview with MPR News in 2013, he recalled the initial feeling of stage fright.

“But I got through it all right, and they just went wild, the kids, and to me that may have been the reason why I became a professional musician.” Thompson said.

When Thompson was 12, he saw Louis Armstrong perform in Minneapolis at the Northrop Auditorium, which fueled his early pursuit of jazz. Thompson started out playing clarinet, before turning to the stride piano.

Singer Prudence Johnson, who performed with Thompson on “A Prairie Home Companion” remembers watching him play.

"I think about those big, gorgeous, long, graceful hands of his just sort of draped over the keyboard,” she said. “If you watched his hands, it almost looked like he was barely doing anything ... he did make it look really effortless."

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Photo courtesy of Butch Thompson.

Pat Donohue, who also performed with Thompson on the show and later recorded with him, admired his musicianship.

“I always said, if I played piano, I would want to play just like Butch Thompson,” Donohue said. “Because he really made me feel good … which I think is what music's supposed to do.”

Thompson mastered music from the past and took joy in performing it for modern audiences, said jazz musician and photographer Travis Anderson.

“When you went to a Butch Thompson show, you felt like you were transported back to the 1920s, or even earlier. And he was, I would say proudly unapologetic about that.” Anderson said.

“Everyone benefits from listening to someone like Butch from listening to the ways that music was performed many, many, many years ago, because if it spoke to people then it can speak to people now.”

butch-thompson
Butch Thompson.

Thompson was known for more than his music. “He was the epitome of a gentleman, and, I would say, a gentle man ... all that stuff that you kind of want in a human being,” Donohue said.

His good nature also came through in his artistry.

“He was a very good listener as a playing partner so that that's so much of it,” Donohue said, “He wasn't listening to himself as much as he was listening to you, while he was playing.”

Thompson’s family has plans for a private funeral, and a public celebration of life planned for a later date. 

MPR News editor Euan Kerr contributed to this story.