Raleigh native Mitch Butler doesn’t remember many naysayers when he started playing trombone as a student. Then again, Butler, playing two shows at Beyu Caffe in downtown Durham on Monday, couldn’t be told he would fail at a career that he didn’t realize even existed.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t even know that you could become a musician professionally, outside of becoming a music teacher,” says Butler, speaking from his home in South Carolina. “When I went to college, I wasn’t told that becoming a musician was impossible, I was just told that I had to work hard to make it. . . . But my family and friends were always supportive of my career. I’m much more likely to see someone in the crowd of one of my shows that encouraged me early in life, and that makes me feel good, just to have that opportunity to walk up to them afterwards and to tell them that I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
The two shows Butler is set to play in Durham mark the first for the jazz musician in the Triangle in nearly half a decade. Since earning a doctorate in music arts from the University of Texas in Austin, as well as leading jazz orchestras throughout basically every major jazz hub in the country, the trombonist has spent the last several years between prestigious teaching jobs at various universities and on the road as a performer. Butler says this juggling keeps him busy, but he still isn’t sure how to answer when someone asks him if he’s “made it” yet.
“To be frank, I don’t think I have ever known if this is the right thing; it’s always a journey, always a situation where you have to push yourself to continue evolving as a musician,” he says. “I was having a conversation last night with someone I respect a great deal about this very thing, and we are constantly trying to piece this together – either through our horns, in what we write or teach, or how we live our lives – and we are always trying to put the pieces together. So I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, this is the sign that my career is going great.’ I’m always trying to go on to the next thing, whether that be an amazing solo or the next teaching gig. I was asked about four days ago to produce an album for someone in February, and it’ll mark the first time that I’ve ever done that, so I’m excited.”
When playing in the South, a common complaint from jazz musicians is the desert of “proper” jazz clubs, like New York City’s heralded “listening rooms.” Instead, musicians must sometimes compete for attention with people having conversations in the audience. Butler knows the argument and understand where musicians are coming from, but sees both sides of the issue.
“Just about any live jazz recording you listen to is going to have background noise from the audience or the venue’s staff,” Butler says. “I’m someone who has never really cared about a disruption in the crowd, unless we’re talking about someone throwing something across the room. There are a couple of places that I played in Raleigh when I was just starting out where there was only about one-third of the bar that was actually there to hear the music. The band provided the ambiance, but the other two-thirds of the folks at the bar didn’t care about the music at all. I learned early on that you have to have a thick skin to play live music, and if you have a statement to make onstage, you make it, and people will let you know whether they accept it or not.
“Listening rooms are great, but they’re not necessarily what jazz was built on. This music was built on some raucous places.”
Who: Mitch Butler
When: 7 and 9 p.m. Monday
Where: Beyu Caffe, 341 W. Main St., Durham
Info: 919-683-1058 or beyucaffe.com