Newer Orleans blues

Jazz and ragtime expert Butch Thompson plays with vocalist Hilary Thavis at the Dakota on Thursday.

by Danylo Loutchko

Seeing Louis Armstrong play live at the Northrop in 1956 hooked Butch Thompson onto jazz for the rest of his life.
“It really killed me,” Thompson said. “I think from then on [my passion for jazz] was really cemented.” 
On both the piano and the clarinet, he continues the tradition of early New Orleans-style jazz with bassist Steve Pikal and special guest vocalist Hilary Thavis on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Dakota Jazz Club. 
“I’ve been fascinated by the kind of music I play now ever since I was a little kid,” said Thompson, a reputed expert on early jazz like ragtime, stride and New Orleans blues.
“There was something about [early jazz] and the whole New Orleans thing, but mainly I think it was rhythm.”
Thompson got started listening to his father’s old jazz records and played piano and clarinet in high school. But he said seeing Louis Armstrong live changed everything.
After enrolling at the University of Minnesota to study music, Thompson took many road trips each year to New Orleans to hear the music and jam with bona fide New Orleans jazz old-timers at the famous Preservation Hall. 
Since, Thompson ran a jazz club from 1966 to 1991 and was the house pianist for “A Prairie Home Companion.”
The famous Minnesota radio show brought jazz and blues vocalist Hilary Thavis to the forefront of the Twin Cities jazz scene as well. She first appeared on the show in 2010 and has been a regular guest artist since. 
Thavis was born and raised in Rome, Italy, to Minnesotan parents. After graduating from high school there, she enrolled in a newly opened school: the Saint Louis College of Music for blues and jazz in Rome. 
“[Jazz and blues] is not really part of Italian culture, so they approach it in a different way that is slightly more academic,” Thavis said. “They would take the blues greats and study them — how they play and where they came from, and try to put themselves into their mind frame, even more so than Americans do because Americans grow up in the midst of it.”
Thavis met Thompson while both worked on “A Prairie Home Companion.” They hit it off almost immediately due to their mutual love of old-time blues singer Bessie Smith. 
“[Thompson] has a style of playing that no one else has right now — it’s amazing,” Thavis said. “He’s exceptionally fun to play with.”
The concert at the Dakota will be rooted in old-style blues. Thavis said she likes the way that the blues and jazz can be both extremely intimate and very grandiose.
It’s also best heard live, Thompson said.
“[Early jazz and blues] is something we have to keep going, and that’s why I like to go out and play,” Thompson said. “What I’m trying to do is to get this kind of music out there, the stuff that I really love, and keep it out there in front of live audiences as much as possible.”
Butch Thompson & Friends
Where Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When 7 p.m. Thursday
Cost $7