Butch Morris, 65; created eccentric ensemble music

Butch Morris conducting at a New York City jazz festival.
Chad Batka/New York Times/file 2011
Butch Morris conducting at a New York City jazz festival.

NEW YORK — Butch Morris, who created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped, died Tuesday in New York. He was 65.

The cause was cancer. The East ­Village resident died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Hamilton.

Mr. Morris referred to his method as ‘‘conduction,” short for “conducted improvisation.” He defined the word, which he trademarked, as ‘‘an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.’’


He often began a performance by setting a tempo with his baton and having his musicians ­develop a theme spontaneously and then seize on the musical ideas he wanted to work with, directing the ensemble with gestures and signals. An outstretched upward palm, up or down to indicate volume, meant sustain; a U shape formed with thumb and forefinger meant repeat; a finger to the forehead meant to remember a melodic phrase or a rhythm for later.

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He introduced this concept in 1985 and at first met resistance from musicians who were not willing to learn the vocabulary and respond to the signals; he was often in a position of asking artists to re­orient themselves to his imagination.

But he demanded to be taken seriously, and he was. After 10 years he had made enough recordings to release “Testament,” a well-received 10-disc set of his work. After 20, he had become an inter­nationally admired creative force, presenting conductions at concert halls worldwide and maintaining workshops and performances in the East Village at Nublu, Lucky Cheng’s, and the Stone.

Mr. Morris, who also played cornet, began his career as a jazz musician in Los Angeles. After settling in New York in the early 1980s, he took his place among both the downtown improvising musicians of the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory and the purveyors of multidisciplinary, mixed-media art flourishing in the city.

Though most of his conductions were with those trained in jazz or new music, many kinds of performers could take part, as long as they had learned his method. (Five days of rehearsal was his preference.)


Lawrence Douglas Morris was born in Long Beach, Calif., and grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Mr. Morris leaves a son, ­Alexandre; a brother Michael; and a sister, Marceline.