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Jazz community mourns pianist Butch Thompson

Renowned Twin Cities jazz pianist, historian dies of Alzheimer's at the age of 78.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota music fans are mourning the loss of Butch Thompson, a jazz piano giant who spent his career playing and promoting the early version of that art form.

Thompson, who was known across the nation to fans of "A Prairie Home Companion" on public radio, died Monday of Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 78.

"He was a virtuoso piano player and clarinetist who was also really kind to me, and was willing to let me sit by his side and try to figure out how he did it," Tony Balluff, a Twin Cities jazz clarinetist who's known Thompson for more than two decades, told KARE.

"He's taught me a reverence for history and being a historian not just playing the tunes, but where those tunes came from and who were the first people to play them."

In the world of traditional, old-time jazz, Thompson was famous. He traveled the world performing and promoting the early pioneers of New Orleans jazz, figures such as ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton, trombonist Kid Ory and cornetist Louis Armstrong.

The Marine on St. Croix native and Stillwater High School grad got his first paying gig in 1962 playing clarinet for the Hall Brothers Band, a New Orleans Jazz group based in Minnesota.

He met Garrison Keillor while the two attended the University of Minnesota, and a decade later Keillor brought him on board as a performer and bandleader on "A Prairie Home Companion." Thompson, over the years, recorded numerous albums and performed both as a solo artist and as a featured musician in jazz bands.

Butch the Historian

For 25 years he hosted a weekly jazz history show on KBEM-FM in Minneapolis, known as Jazz 88.  He devoted his "Jazz Originals" program to sharing his collection of early jazz records with listeners, including the back stories about the recording sessions, sidemen and arrangers.

"He really worked hard with his "Jazz Originals" show for 25 years just shining a light on the musicians of the 1920s and 1930s," Balluff explained.

Thompson was a veritable treasure trove of trivia about early jazz artists and the instruments they used to achieve their sound.

"That's one of the biggest losses here. He not only could tell us the history of that music but could play it all. If you could travel back in time and listen to those early jazz artists, you'd realize Butch Thompson was playing the real thing," Balluff remarked.

"We had a living person here in the 21st century playing the music that started it all."

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Playing with Butch

Thompson sat in with Balluff's band, the Southside Aces, on many occasions.

"We'd play once a month for a couple of years. It was an amazing blessing for us. We would have to pinch ourselves every time we were about to go on stage with him!" 

He said Thompson's would subtly tease the members of the six-man combo when experimenting with multiple clarinets.

"He'd turn to us and say, 'I never heard anything like it!' Not exactly a compliment. That was his sense of humor. He had the driest and most wonderful sense of humor."

Balluff said that as dementia claimed more of Thompson's memory he still managed to connect with the keys and make it work.

"It was really like a miracle. He'd find new ways of playing to compensate for what he had forgotten. It was really something else."

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