Thompson keeps jazz tradition alive and well

  • Article by: LIZ ROLFSMEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Butch Thompson, pianist and onetime leader of the Prairie Home Companion band, will play an intimate show at the LeDuc estate in Hastings next Sunday.

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Butch Thompson will perform ragtime and New Orleans jazz from the likes of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller on April 13 at the LeDuc Historic Estate.

Photo: Travis Anderson,

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When Butch Thompson was in high school in the early 1960s, he and his band, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves”— a quartet that included a snare drum, clarinet, piano and washtub bass — always managed to squeeze in a few jazz tunes during school dances.

“We would play three or four numbers, and then they had to go back to their top 40 records,” he said.

Thompson, a former longtime member of the Prairie Home Companion house band, who will play next Sunday at the LeDuc Historic Estate in Hastings, has been unwavering in his love of jazz.

Thompson, who grew up in Marine on St. Croix, started playing piano at a young age and loved boogie woogie blues, Gene Autry, and German polkas and waltzes. But jazz was his passion, and he adored watching jazz on the Dorsey Brothers variety show and Timex watch-sponsored programs.

“It was just all over the place,” he said. “It was a popular thing on television.”

His father took him at age 12 to see musical idol Louis Armstrong in concert. “He was a great musician, but he was also a wonderful showman,” Thompson said. “He was always mugging. He was just really funny.”

Thompson started collecting 45s (old records) from a drugstore in Stillwater, and he played them on a turntable that ran the sound through the television’s speakers. He started playing clarinet in high school, and his friends were into jazz, but “not like me,” he said.

After playing with a few bands, the Hall Brothers, a New Orleans style band that played at Brady’s Bar on Hennepin Avenue, hired him on for a steady weekend job. He was underage, so his parents created a document that made the bandleader his legal guardian during working hours.

After a couple of years in the Army, Thompson returned to become a fixture at the Emporium of Jazz, a club in Mendota that ran for 25 years. Preservation Hall had just opened in New Orleans, and Thompson said that a lot of musicians from there played the club.

“There was just nothing else like it anywhere in the cities,” Thompson said. “It got off to a strong start and went on for a long time. It was a standard jazz stop for a long time for people. It was a destination for traveling musicians or people who liked that kind of music. You didn’t have to be a jazz expert or anything. It was entertainment. It really wasn’t anything but that. It’s not necessarily music to sit down and seriously contemplate.”

“It was quite a success, I think because it had a dance floor. It was like a roadhouse,” he said, adding that people brought their own drinks. “You could dance and hear some good music.”

Thompson had met Garrison Keillor at the University of Minnesota, and in the 1970s, he played frequently on the “Prairie Home Companion” show. In the 1980s, he invited drummer George “Red” Maddock and bassist Bill Evans — the start of the Butch Thompson Trio — and they eventually became Prairie Home Companion’s house band, as the show rose to national prominence.

Thompson went on to do music consulting on Broadway and off-Broadway shows. He tours widely as a soloist or with the Butch Thompson Trio, his eight-piece jazz originals band, or his blues duo with fingerstyle guitarist Pat Donohue.

Thompson said next Sunday’s show will feature ragtime and New Orleans jazz — the likes of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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