Flowers for Mr. B.

Well, the original post I wrote fell victim to a server crash. I had no idea the Facebook post linking to it would come back and gain so much traction months later, so I feel like I ought to recreate my (grantedly inadequate) tribute to a local legend as best I can.

-Julian

Frank Butenschon

I used to know a person much wiser than I that advised me on several occasions to “give a person their flowers while they’re alive.” One of the few regrets in my life is that I failed to do this for a man that was as important to me as family, and a true inspiration to myself and – as I have learned since the original post here – the entire region. Everyone has a select handful of people that burn an indelible mark on them, be it for good or bad – this is a tribute to one of mine. He’s altered the path of my life in a way that will improve its quality until I shuffle off (hopefully as a very, very old man) to play in the Great Jam Session in the Sky. His name is Frank Butenschon, and here’s my story of just one of many lives he shaped during his time on Earth.

Every muso likes to talk about “influences.” Who influenced you moist as a musician? Who has inspired you most in your musical journey? Who do you want to emulate? Most musicians talk about this band or that player… but around the south Georgia scene I now know there are many folks that have picked up an instrument and never put it back down… thanks to a man by the name of Frank Butenschon – affectionately known by those he encouraged over the years as “Mr. B.” This is a short tale about my personal experience with a great mentor and friend.

I first met Mr. B. when I was sitting in a band class at Berrien High School back in the early 90s. I’m going to be honest – I’d picked up the sax on a whim some time earlier, and band class seemed like an “easy A” and a chance to relax for an hour or so between “real work.” I learned a major scale or two… but I wasn’t sure why. We played (admittedly good) music by dead guys that really didn’t light my fire all that much at the time, and learned to read passably (I hate to admit that all this time later I’m still a “passable” reader of music, but I digress.) Long story short, I was there to pass the time and goof off, and I was good at it.

I will never forget the first day that Mr. B showed up to class. I knew immediately that the game had changed… it was clear that there was a new sheriff in town, but I just wanted to wait around and see if the law was changing for better or worse. If I recall correctly, we didn’t play any scales that day – in fact, I’m not sure we even picked up an instrument. The man just walked in and laid down a plan for change… and with an air of excitement and fun that he could relay just by talking (he had an old-school southern accent peppered with jazz and music slang that made you unable to resist smiling) he laid out his vision for the next year. By the hours’ end he had the whole place ready to jump into everything head first… for those of you that have dealt with young teens you know this is no small feat in itself… but it didn’t stop there.

Once he had the group as a whole eagerly waiting to see where the new program would go, he started zeroing in on each of the students to see what made them tick… what they needed from the music program to motivate them and make them WANT to grow. I can only give my own experience here but I know that there are many people that have similar experienced to the following:

As a sax guy I naturally found myself pondering over the music made by the great jazzers of prior generations, and marveling at their ability to create great works of art – on the fly no less – seemingly off the top of their head and effortlessly. I didn’t let on, but I was in awe, and more than just a little jealous. If ONLY I could figure out how this was done (keep in mind this was pre-Internet) then MAN I’d play all day! Whether I said this out loud or not, Mr. B managed to pick up on it pretty much from jump street. Somehow he got right to the heart of what would prod me into become a better musician and he brought it straight to the surface. One of many moments I’ll never forget was a few days after he got there. He called me into his office, looked me straight in the eye, and said “You wanna play jazz?”

“Yes SIR.” I was more than just a little excited at the possibility, but then he hit me with the words that all teen musos dread… “Then learn your scales.”

… WHAT? Back to this old routine? I recall that being a considerable downer, but something in that jolly old southern voice compelled me to trust him on this particular piece of advice, and off I went to obey.

Mr. B didn’t waste a whole lot of time between that little conference and the first jazz lesson. It was a week later, maybe… I still remember this very day as the day I started my journey as a musician. He had me play my most proficient scale (C, of course – what else) over a C major jazz progression… and just listen. Just like that the lights went on… “ooohhhhh SCALES…” I don’t know how many lights he flipped on just like this over the course of his years, but looking back at the look on his face that day I could tell by his smiling eyes that see the lights come on never got old. I never had to be told to practice scales again. 

And a funny thing happened – slowly but surely – from that point forward. You know all those dead guys that I was forced to learn before? The ones that “didn’t light my fire?” Well, I found myself WANTING to play those tunes, WANTING to develop a knowledge in what made them sound the way they did, WANT to get better at reading those black dots and squiggles on the page that told me what and how to play them. 

I credit Mr. B. as the sole reason I am still playing today after studying under him some 25 years ago. Had he not been there I think I would have continued to play scales without knowing why, played the black dots on the page of music to which I was not yet ready to listen, participated in high school band through senior year and then … well, probably would have just vanished from the scene altogether. Mr. B. was the man that showed me that music could actually be not just exercises in hand-eye coordination, not just an easy ‘A’… but that it could and SHOULD be a lifelong enjoyment, a constant and joyous pursuit of perfection, and – above all – a source of a joy unlike you can get from anything else. One of the few regrets I have is that I never got to play on a stage with Mr. B. as a colleague… my interaction with him was limited to that of student and teacher. Even so, he left a mark on me that I will keep until death takes me, and I will always be grateful to him for taking the time and effort to take a fledgling sax player with marginal talent and putting him on the road to a lifelong passion. Frank Butenschon was a GIANT of a teacher, a consummate motivator, and he had a heart every bit as big as his talents.

I miss Mr. B. greatly, even though I had not laid eyes on the man for many years prior to his death. It warms my heart to see that he lives on in his legacy of Azalea Winds – which he founded and you should really check out –  and, I imagine, countless students like myself that still hold an instrument in their hands today because of his encouragement and dedication to teaching the joys – not just the mechanics – of music.

One of my favorite authors once noted that “a man is not dead while his name is still spoken.” I hold that to be a great truth, and I hope this will help in some small way to spread the word about a man that – I hope – will have his name spoken here for many years to come.

Here’s your flowers, Mr. B. – I’m sorry they’re so late.

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Julian Vickers
Julian Vickers

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