Minnesota piano giant Butch Thompson dies at 78

He was tall with a distinguished mustache and magic fingers. Long fingers that traveled down the Mississippi River and connected to New Orleans.

Butch Thompson was a musical giant from Minnesota, the original pianist of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio, a stride and ragtime piano expert who consulted on a Broadway musical, a pop musician who performed with orchestras from Cairo to Tokyo.

“His knowledge of stride piano and his ability to perform it was second to none,” said Steve Heckler, founder of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival which Thompson performed for many years.

“In a nutshell, Butch was a musician’s musician,” said Crescent City trumpet player Clive Wilson, who performed regularly with Thompson at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. “It’s hard to imagine a New Orleans jazz world without Butch.”

Thompson died Sunday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at his home in St. Paul. He was 78 years old.

“He wanted the end to come home, and I was so happy to be able to do that for him,” his wife, Mary Ellen Niedenfuer Thompson, said via email. “He knew he was home, he said he wanted to play the piano…this through the fog of terminal dementia. I’m so glad he knew he was home with me and the dogs.”

The pianist played his final gig in June 2021 at Crooners Supper Club in Fridley with the Southside Aces, a band he had played with since 2017. They released an album, “How Long Blues,” featuring Thompson in 2020.

“There were a handful of times when we’d play an impromptu duet with the band, after which he’d turn to me and say, like a compliment, with a smile shaking under his mustache, ‘I didn’t. never heard anything like it!’ recalled Southside Aces frontman Tony Balluff, who plays the clarinet, Thompson’s other instrument.

Although Thompson made his professional clarinet debut as a teenager playing traditional jazz with the Hall Brothers, he rose to prominence locally as the original house pianist – and later musical director – on “A Prairie Home Companion” (PHC) by Garrison Keillor.

“I first met him when he was an English student at the University of Minnesota, sitting behind me in Sarah Youngblood’s Shakespeare class, but he walked off that road, thank God, and found his true calling,” Keillor said via email. “We worked together for years, and I never heard a derogatory word from him or anything denominational, two of my specialties. It was all there in the music.”

Twin Cities piano maestro Richard Dworsky succeeded Thompson on PHC and performed with him on PHC Cruises and in Robert Altman’s 2006 film “A Prairie Home Companion”. “His piano and clarinet were the real deal,” Dworsky said. “Sometimes flashy and virtuosic and sometimes sober, slow and moving.”

Colleagues have described Thompson as a humble and gentle man.

“He was very generous – he always wanted to make the public happy – and his self-mockery was very famous,” said Michele Jansen, former general manager of KBEM-FM (Jazz 88), where Thompson hosted the weekly “Jazz Originals” show. . for 25 years until 2017. “He was funny, with such dry humor.

Patty Peterson’s program preceded Thompson’s on Sunday night.

“It was unbelievable how much money he brought in in an hour in pledges because of his popularity,” she said.

Growing up in Marine sur Sainte-Croix, Richard Thompson Jr. started piano lessons at the age of 6. There were two pivotal moments in his childhood: seeing a movie at a kid’s party hall, Sugar Chile Robinson, playing boogie-woogie with tiny hands; and, at his own talent show in 1956, he elicited an enthusiastic reaction to his boogie-woogie piano treatment of Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”.

As a child, Thompson became a serious collector of jazz records, which his father boasted about, as well as rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. His interest was further fueled by attending concerts in Minneapolis by jazz star Louis Armstrong and classical piano master Arthur Rubinstein.

At Stillwater High School, Thompson pursued the clarinet, which he had started playing in sixth grade. With some classmates, he formed Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves to perform at balls.

In 1961, while attending the University of Minnesota, the clarinetist sat with the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis. A year later, he officially joined the band, playing the seedy bars of Hennepin Avenue even though he wasn’t old enough to buy a drink. Then, two months after signing, Thompson made his first trip to Crescent City.

“When I came to New Orleans, I was just sold on this music,” he said in a 2020 interview.

After a two-year stint in the Army, Thompson returned to the U. Because Hall Brothers gigs couldn’t pay all the bills, he worked as a journalist, then taught ragtime piano and jazz history at the West Bank School of Music. In 1974, he began his twelve-year tenure on PHC.

The classical world also beckoned a star soloist at pop concerts, beginning in 1987 with Thompson’s performance of “Scott Joplin Suite for Piano and Orchestra”. The pianist-clarinetist has traveled the world, playing everywhere from Tokyo to Cairo.

Thompson has released more than two dozen albums under his own name and appeared on numerous other records, including a 1996 Grammy-winning project by trumpeter Doc Cheatham.

A noted jazz historian, Thompson served as a consultant for the 1992 Broadway musical “Jelly’s Last Jam,” set to Jelly Roll Morton’s jazz piano.

Survivors include his wife, sons Victor and Sam; daughter-in-law Frannie Christensen; brothers Peter and John, sister Barbara Raff and two grandchildren. A private burial will be held at Marine sur Sainte-Croix with a public celebration of life to be scheduled later.

Star Tribune writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this story.

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