San Antonio’s First Lady of Jazz

In her previous albums, Bett Butler told poignant musical stories that sprang from her own heart and mind. But for her newest release, American Sampler, San Antonio’s first lady of jazz chose very different material. Working with her husband, bassist and producer Joël Dilley, she revisited what is often called the Great American Songbook that includes standards such as Over the Rainbow, Every Time We Say Goodbye and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? These songs may be familiar, but Butler’s interpretation has managed to make them fresh again. Her deep, sometimes grave, sometimes soft voice and her intimate, thoughtful delivery impart deeper meaning to the old favorites, helping the listener to appreciate them anew.

What prompted her to take this artistic detour through the past was her two-year collaboration with Dr. Herbert Keyser, a great fan of the classic stage musicals and the author of Geniuses of the American Musical Theater: The Composers & Lyricists. A good singer himself, the retired physician elicited Butler’s guidance in bringing to life the compositions of the theater giants profiled in the book, and the two eventually organized a series of concerts/lectures that continue to play to enthusiastic audiences here and elsewhere. “I have sung some of these standards for years but never thought of recording them,” says Butler after giving me a tour of the Mandala Music Productions studio, which she co-owns with Dilley. “But Dr. Keyser kept urging me to do it. So, Joël and I decided to take three months off from performing and cloistered ourselves in the studio to produce this album. We had never done that before, but it was wonderful. It gave us a chance to dwell into all aspects of these songs. It was intense, the two of us together 24 hours a day, but it was the best time of my life … We are both happy the way it turned out.”

All that hard work is paying off. Reviewers love the disc, and fans are responding as well. Though jazz isn’t the most popular genre in Texas, Butler and Dilley have developed a loyal fan base and enjoy enormous respect among their fellow musicians. On stage, Butler is chic and relaxed as she sings, plays the piano and interacts with the audience in an easy, low-key manner. At the March CD release concert at the Josephine Theater, she shared the podium with several others — Dilley, drummer Phillip Marshall, singer Tom Orf and his guitarist — but it was mostly her show, and everyone there knew it. She clearly loves performing, but as an independent artist and, in effect, small business co-owner, she has to attend to the business side of things as well. “The next thing for me is to get the CD out to radio stations beyond Austin and San Antonio, which will fuel digital sales,” she observes. “The buzz is, everything is going digital, but lately independent musicians have been selling a lot of CDs. People still want the physical CD. I am living in both worlds — I like CDs, but I am comfortable doing things online, too.” Most releases under the Dilleys’ Dragon Lady Records label are still available on disc, and the studio’s office walls are lined with shelves full of albums by various artists who have worked with them. Still, an online presence is pretty much a must nowadays. “The Internet has made it easier for independent artists to get their music out there, and that’s wonderful, but the trick is how to stand out in all that noise,” she adds. “We are constantly figuring out how best to do that.”

A songcrafter of truthful songs

Though her parents were not musicians, both loved music and bought a piano for their daughters when little Bett was only 3 years old. But there were strings attached. The girls had to commit to lessons and practicing till each graduated from high school. Butler’s older sister never touched the piano again after graduation, but Butler “loved it.” She discovered she could play by ear and enjoyed playing whatever was in her head. Another source of musical enjoyment was the radio, where she first heard jazz music and, more specifically, Billie Holiday. “She had such a unique voice and way of singing,” says Butler, who keeps a large photo of Holiday in the office. “I was intrigued with what she did with what she was given because she didn’t have a huge voice. I felt that I didn’t have a beautiful voice either. Later, when I majored in music in college, I wasn’t exactly encouraged to become a vocalist.” That only goes to show that professors don’t always know best. After spending a few years working for the now long-defunct Melodrama Theater as music director, scriptwriter and composer, she eventually found her way into performance. Many San Antonians still remember her from her years of playing and singing at Dick’s Last Resort on the River Walk. That was like going to graduate school in performance, she quips. “Nothing much scares me after that!”

She met her husband at another gig, and despite being a bit intimidated by his professionalism, asked him to join the band she was putting together at the time. They have been happily married for 26 years now. “We are both obsessive-compulsive musicians who live and breathe music,” she explains. “It would be difficult to be married to someone who is not like that.” That passion comes across in their work. In collaboration with Dilley, Butler has recorded two critically acclaimed albums of original songs, Short Stories and Myths & Fables, that are truly works of art. Tackling subjects like losing the family farm, the experience of small-town Texas, the need to stand up for what is right, the healing of the soul and, yes, love in its many forms, her lyrics reach the level of genuine poetry that her melodies and voice — and Dilley’s arrangements — carry straight to your heart.

Inspiration can come from a number of sources, explains the artist. “A lot of my songs have been a way for me to work through things that disturb me. They are therapeutic,” she says. “Sometimes I would hear a phrase that suggests a story. Also, the music may come to me first or the other way around. Words have rhythm and pitch and can suggest a melody. It’s really an organic process. The most important thing about songwriting is that the song has to be truthful, to express human truth.” One especially inspired example, When Love Has Left the Room, won first place in the jazz category of the 2006 International Songwriting Competition out of more than 10,000 entries. Her contribution to the local music scene has been recognized by the San Antonio Business Journal, which named her a Woman of Influence in the Arts and also by the Artist Foundation that awarded her $5,000 to complete work on her Myths and Fables CD. In addition, she was inducted into the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame.

All those accolades did not go to her head, though. As an experienced artist, she knows she is in a challenging and changing business whose future will have ups and downs. “The best thing I can do for myself and for everyone else is to be the best musician I can be,” she says sincerely. “Music can have a profoundly positive effect on people. As musicians, that’s all we have to give.”

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