Tributes for Two New York Tuba Legends
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Part II: Don Butterfield
Don Butterfield: Teacher & Friend
by Dean A. Sommerville
Copyright © Dean A. Somerville, 2006 All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s Note: This article was submitted in September 2006 and scheduled for publication in the winter issue of the ITEA Journal. Regrettably, Mr. Butterfield passed away on November 27, 2006. Mr. Butterfield will be deeply missed, and his contributions to the music world are insurmountable. At ITEC 2006, Mr. Butterfield was awarded ITEA’s highest recognition, the ITEA Lifetime Achievement Award. His award citation can be found at www.iteaonline.org/journal.shtml (Volume 33, Number 4).
One afternoon in July of last year (2005), I answered the phone and heard Alice Butterfield open the conversation with the words “I’m afraid I have bad news.” My heart sank as she went on to tell me that Don had suffered a major stroke the previous day and was completely paralyzed on his left side. The intervening months have been filled with frequent memories of the person who has been, to me, a teacher, mentor, colleague, personal and professional role model, and as close and cherished a personal friend as I have ever had or ever will have in my life.
As I begin this article, this appreciation of the life and landmark career of an amazing musician and wonderful human being, approximately one year has passed since that day in July 2005. Unfortunately, Don’s condition has not improved and has actually declined somewhat over the last month. It is my wish and purpose that the article will serve to remind all of us not only of his many groundbreaking accomplishments and contributions during a landmark 57-year career but also of what a fine human being Don is and always has been.
Don Butterfield was born in the small logging town of Centrailia, Washington. As a young man he became involved with music through the public school instrumental music program in Centrailia, his first instrument being the trumpet. Fortunately for all of us his high school band director, Mr. Byron Miller, convinced him to switch to the tuba. His advancement was rapid and rather amazing; practicing six hours a day, while in high school he learned the entire Herbert Clarke trumpet solos on the tuba and extended his upper register to double high B-flat. (A few years later, during his early days as a student at the Juilliard School in New York, a fellow student expressed amazement at his extended high register. Don’s reply was simple and very revealing: “No one ever told me I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that.”)
Following high school, when our country entered the WWII, Don enlisted and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Following the war he was discharged and decided to use his GI Bill educational benefits to pursue his musical studies. The series of events that saw him eventually accepted as a student at Juilliard speaks volumes about the extraordinary determination and focus that he possessed, even as a young man.
Shortly after returning from the service Don attended a concert presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra in Seattle, Washington. Following the performance, he went backstage and introduced himself to Philip Donatelli, the principal tubist with the orchestra from 1923 to 1948. Don asked him if he might have the time to give him a lesson. As the orchestra was on tour and their personal time was limited, Mr. Donatelli told him that he would be happy to give him a lesson if he could come to Philadelphia.
Determined to succeed, Don shipped his horn to Philadelphia and hitchhiked to get there, showing up on Donatelli’s doorstep. Following the lesson, Mr. Donatelli recommended that Don go to Juilliard and, as he put it, study with “The Man,” Mr. William J. Bell. After shipping the horn back to Washington and “hitching” again to get home, Don began the process of doing just that.
Over the following spring and summer, he repeated the shipping/hitchhiking process to play an audition in New York for the Juilliard Brass Faculty (basically the Philharmonic principals), to include Mr. Bell, performing Clarke’s Bride of the Waves as part of his audition. He repeated the process to return home again to Washington, and, to use his own words, “I sat and watched the mailbox for six weeks until the letter came informing me that I had been accepted.” Shipping the horn back to New York and hitch hiking to get there one more time, he began his studies at Juilliard, at the same time embarking upon an amazing 57-year odyssey that would open many, many doors not only for him, but also for each and every one of us that play the tuba.
Shortly after his arrival in New York in 1947, Don began his first professional job as the then youngest member of the Goldman Band. He also received a call from Mr. Bell to play second tuba with him on a week’s worth of New York Philharmonic performances of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. The music director of the Philharmonic at the time was Dimitri Metropolis, the first of many legendary conductors that Don was to perform under during the course of his career. The list also included Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski (Don was the principal tubist with the American Symphony), Reinhold Schilke, Leonard Bernstein, Merle Evans, Paul Lavalle, and, of course, Richard Franco Goldman.
Don also established himself early on as one of New York’s most sought after freelance studio musicians. He once told me that when he showed up for his very first “studio recording gig” he found a second tenor sax part waiting for him on his stand. He said “I looked at it for a minute, shrugged my shoulders and said to myself, ‘well, we’ll make this work.’” For the next 57 years he did just that, creating and establishing, as my friend Ben Massin so well put it, a “cottage industry” for all of those who would follow through the years.
In addition to his studio work (often three jobs a day), Don’s regular jobs in New York included The American Symphony, 20 years as a member of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, The Goldman Band, The Cities Service Band of America (of which he was a charter member), The Ed Sullivan Show (he was in the pit the night that Ed introduced The Beatles to the world), The Gary Moore Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. He also was first call when the Tonight Show Band used a full brass section (while it was based in New York). He did occasional work with the Ringling Bros.-Barnum and Bailey Circus Band when the circus played New York and also worked on Broadway from time to time. He was, for many years, the music director and conductor of The Gloria Concert Band in New York.
Don was also a member of the board of directors of the New York Brass Conference and was in charge of the Conference’s brass quintet competition, was involved with Columbia University’s 20 th Century Music Project for 20 years, has served for many years on the International Tuba Euphonium Association Advisory Council, has performed with and served as a member of the board of directors of the Imperial Brass, and has performed with and been a featured soloist with the Danbury Brass.
The list of people that Don has worked with throughout his long career reads like a “who’s who” listing in the music business. It includes Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Charles Mingus, Chuck Hinton, Buddy Rich, Doc Severensen, Harold Seletsky, Lou Soloff, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Bennett (to include Tony’s first professional engagement), Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Paulette Attie, Harvey Phillips, William Rose, Sam Pilafian, Bill Barber, Ed Goldstein, Joe Tarto, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Michael Colgrass, and Frank Sinatra.
Career highlights have included:
*A world tour with The American Symphony.
*A European tour with Dizzy Gillespie.
*The Town Hall Concert with Charles Mingus.
*Being asked by Clark Terry to do an album with him, Top and Bottom Brass , which remains today one of the finest jazz albums ever made (and is now available on CD).
*Working for Frank Sinatra for four years, which Don describes as “A once in a lifetime opportunity that will never come again.”
*Forming a new and unique jazz combo with legendary New York cabaret singer Paulette Attie. It consisted of tuba, piano, and, in larger halls, a set drummer [see Paulette Attie’s tribute below].
Don is also an extremely prolific and gifted composer and arranger. He has written and arranged many, many works for various types of ensembles and combinations of instruments. His works have been performed by The United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” Washington, D.C., at The New York Brass Conference, The Army Band’s Annual Tuba-Euphonium Conference, by the Allentown Band and The Grand Military Band of Virginia, and on concerts and recitals on various college and university campuses throughout the nation. Though most of his original material is not published at this writing, indications are that it will be in the relatively near future.
Don remained one of the busiest and most productive people in our profession right up to the time he suffered the stroke. His favorite saying/slogan has always been “If you rest, you rust,” and he concluded every phone conversation with the words “Straight ahead,” and he has surely lived by that. Always looking for new types and styles of music to perform, at the age of 75, when many people have long since retired, he delved into a completely new realm for him, Klezmer music. Working as a charter member of The West End Klezmorum he helped to spread public awareness and popularity of Klezmer music in New York and across the nation. He appears on the group’s initial album, Frelichs 21. At the age of 80 he visited Australia for the first time, touring the country as a featured soloist with and a member of Alan Raph’s Danbury Brass. The next spring Don, then 81, was featured as a performer on the recital at a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the first International Tuba-Euphonium Conference at the University of Indiana, Bloomington (making the roundtrip by car from New York!). At the age of 83 he attended and participated in (both as a performer and conductor) a weekend reunion to honor the Band of America in Houston, Texas (the last time I was to see him prior to the stroke), an event that I will always be grateful to my friend Rex Sagle for organizing. Two days prior to suffering the stroke he had played a three hour job and had three more jobs scheduled for the two day period following the stroke, and he was actually teaching a lesson when the stroke occurred.
In addition to his musical talent and accomplishments, Don is a wonderful human being and a great teacher, a person who would do anything he could to help someone succeed and to improve the quality of their life. For someone who was as busy as he always was, he was incredibly generous with his time. When I first called him to ask if he would accept me as a student and to schedule a lesson, he said “When you come for your lesson, don’t be in a hurry…I like to turn the clock around to face the wall.” Beginning with the very first time that I drove up to his house to meet him and to begin study with him, no lesson lasted less than 4–5 hours, and they usually included dinner as well. When you finished a lesson with Don you not only realized just how much you had learned that day, you also felt really good about yourself as a player and felt completely re-energized. To be able to create that kind of a relationship between student and teacher is truly a rare gift, as those of us who have been privileged enough to experience it realize. It is a life (and career) changing experience, truly remarkable.
One more example of Don’s wholehearted support of the tuba and all of us who play it: Winston Morris has mentioned on numerous occasions that Don has attended each and every performance that the Tennessee Tech Tuba Ensemble has given in Carnegie Hall. Despite his hectic schedule he has never been too busy to support and encourage young musicians in any way he possibly can, a lesson that we can all benefit from.
In closing, I just want to express the hope that Don Butterfield, as well as all of the other landmark players and teachers that laid the foundation for the rest of us to follow will NEVER, EVER BE FORGOTTEN, and to express heartfelt thanks once again for all that he has done, not only for me but for each and every one of us that play the horn. Because they were, we are. Let us never forget that!