Lillian Boutté

Photo of Lillian Boutté and Georg Facius

Jazzens lille store dame, Lillian Boutté sammen med Georg Facius, februar 1999
The little great lady of Jazz, Lillian Boutté together with Georg Facius, February 1999

LILLIAN BOUTTÉ – INTERVIEW

9 February 1999

Early this year I had the pleasure to meet with Lillian Boutté at a flat in Kolding, where she stayed together with her husband, Thomas līEtienne during one of her numerous tours of Denmark.

Being a lifelong jazz fan and for many years a devoted admirer and follower of Lillian Boutté, I wanted to try to get “behind the stage” and learn more about her background, her life and her music, and to try to convey this to her many fans, taking them also backstage.

In spite of the fact that Lillian Boutté has for many years been immensely popular in Denmark, and probably is the American jazz artist who has performed for most Danes ever, strangely enough I have never seen or heard any in depth interview with her, and the fact that on August 6 1999 she will be 50 years, gives all the more reason to make one.

“For 16 years we have been living in a bus, and itīs crazy, there is no way I can make anyone understand why I like it. I am a solo person, that is, I do my own management. Promotion and management companies have a great number of names, so how much personal attention can they give to me? In 65 days they might be able to give me 15 concerts, maybe not even that. And I wonīt let them dictate to me where I can work, how I can work and whom I can work with, and I like to work. You know, Iīm not asking for the big bucks, I only ask for fairness in my money, fairness in the way Iīm treated. I donīt want people to put stipulations on me about what I can do. I am an entertainer, and I am doing this in a manner I like. I had to break away from management. So now the agents have problems with me, they donīt like this little, short thing coming from out of New Orleans running around, and a little woman like that taking care of her own business.

The musicians, the Danish musicians, the German musicians, the English musicians, if it hadnīt been for these people copying the New Orleans music, the New Orleans music would have died. If it had not been for these enthusiastic young men, and for jazz enthusiast like you, maybe we would be listening only to country music, and I wouldnīt be here talking to you.

I am a fan of old traditional jazz, a purist, you might say, and you can only listen to that on records, but I am also happy whenever I listen to someone who really try to play that music, and keep it alive.

Thatīs right, you have to meet it with an open mind. The most important thing, I feel, when I am on that stage, everybody in the audience has paid  for a ticket to be there, and we must give them more than they expect. I want them to talk about it and be exited about it, and to want to listen to more jazz. One of the main things I feel lack in many music performances, is that people get too comfortable. I mean, they go on stage, they have got a big audience out there, and they just so play there music mechanically.

From the very beginning of jazz, in speak-easys it was about drinking and smoking and dancing, and having a good time, a music that brought people together, and thatīs whatīs important, very important. It is just very important, that when you are on that stage, every time it is a different audience, every time you have a different feeling. Here is my audience, and I am all the way there, and there is this much space between me and the people I am working for, I try to get on the floor and get closer to them, I donīt like the distance. When you see musicians that comes to you, and like each other on the stage that is a good sign.

Earlier I did not realise it, but a lot, and I mean a lot of people want to work with us, and both my husband and I are of course proud now, that so many people are really looking forward to work with us. Our family of musicians, our “Music Friends” I am giving them a taste of these old guys. I put them around these old guys, and they are giving them something, and they are giving the old guys something back. When my musicians go on stage, they donīt go on stage and separate, you know, its no so that everybody goes to their own little place, they are friends, they laugh together, they drink together, they talk about things.

Isnīt it sometimes a problem for you to find Danish musicians who fit in with you, and are good enough for you?

No, not really, because Denmark has such great musicians. Denmark has so many wonderful musicians, especially when it comes to drum and base players and also piano. Denmark is an institution as far as musicians are concerned, because you take care of your cultural arts. I got a group of musicians that I can work with in Denmark, I got a group of musicians that I can work with in England, and also America. Itīs not a problem to call someone, when one of my guys canīt make it.  Thatīs how we make new friends. I trust my guys and I only ask them to recommend to me some other that can play, and all of a sudden we have a new member in our family. When this one canīt play, this one can, and I donīt keep musicians on the road as long as Thomas and I do. We stay on the road, but we change the musicians, because our musicians are family people, they have wives and kids and friends, you know, so I have learned as a woman on the road, for as long as I have been, I have learned that it is very important that their fire stays alive. They can go for about two weeks, maybe three weeks. I donīt want to see their hands or their feet getting nervous, you know. They have to go home, and stay in their own surroundings, and when they come back to me, they play better music.

This goes especially for American musicians that I have brought over here. The third week they start to miss their food, they start to miss their bed, they start to miss their TV, and I prefer to see them go home to their families, and stick it out for some time with their partner, and come back to Thomas and me again, full on the batteries, totally full on the batteries, and then they can work fully again, because they have to do this, this is their support.

What about your family life, your personal life?

Thatīs on the road. We only recognised it maybe three years ago, we realised that we were head bangers, and we donīt have kids, our kids are the band, I would say that my kids are my husband and the band. You know when we say kids I got 5.ooo kids all over the world, I got kids all over the world. Our family is in Germany, and our family is in New Orleans, but what we have is – we made families in the world. Here in Denmark we feel an unending relationship that we cannot give up, so itīs like wherever we lay our hat, itīs our home. In Hamburg we have a flat, we rent a flat from the happiest landlady in the world, because she almost never see us. She loves us, and she says, please never leave us. Thatīs where I keep my luggage, you know, and when we are home, we are home, but we spend more time here in Denmark.

Three years ago Thomas said, none in the world would do what we are doing, who could survive this. We were more like partners than husband and wife, because we have the responsibilities, and have to take care of everything. So, in a normal day, we will get into the car, Thomas is in the back talking to the guys, making the musical program. I am in front with the driver. We drive eight hours, twelve hours it doesīnt matter. I drive, he drives, we share the whole thing. We arrive, get out of the bus and go into the hotel room, and we still talk business. We married into this, we married into music. I love my husband, and I know my husband loves me, but many people canīt understand our relationship, because all of a sudden I start going out and do things on my own, and Thomas is going with friends to make music, and sometimes we are going away three weeks from each other, and people start to getting curious, and people starts, you know, oh! They are not together. Oh! There are problems in the marriage. Well the problem in the marriage was, that we see each other thirty hours in the day. And we laugh about it because – itīs just like everything else, you just take full advantage of it. We never stop to smell a flower. We get a lot of flowers, but we never smell them, because we donīt have the time. We have breakfast with the boys, we have lunch with the boys, we have dinner with the boys, and in the night we are so damned tired, that we just go to bed, and wake up next morning, and it is the same thing all over again. And it had to stop, because we had to say, OK, wait, there is no personal time. All personal things, all personal business we handled in the open, talking on the bus, with me up front, and Thomas in the back with the boys.

In the last three years we have had to shake ourselves and say, OK, letīs look at it. Letīs look at whatīs happening to our life. So we started to take little steps and say, go away, and when you come back, I know your face, and you know mine, but I`ve missed it, and youīve missed mine, and in the last three years we have been able to do it, working on our own some of the time. But the rumour has been, of course, oh! They are not together, there are problems. To be honest there has been people, I donīt call them friends, who would like to hear that we had problems, who would like to believe that we are not together anymore. Fortunately Thomas and I we can laugh at it, and we do that a lot.

Thomas has not been in Denmark with you for about two years, I believe?

Yes, thatīs quite a long time, but now that we are here with the Neanders Jazz Band, people are exited, because they see Thomas and I together again, and thatīs what I really appreciate. They come to me after the concert, and they say to me, itīs always so nice to have you here, but itīs very nice indeed to have your husband together with you. Itīs a great thing for us that we can hear him again. I have been working with Neanders for five years, and I enjoy that very much, it has become a tradition, and they have also become my music friends.

Its hard to be a woman in this business on the road. I call myself a leader of the band, you know, cause my husband is so nice, he has got respect for the musicians, he donīt want to fire them, he talk to them about the music, but he donīt want to be the one to grab them by their neck and shake them. So I have to do this sometimes. I have to turn myself around and make myself hard, because my heart is not hard, but all these years I have got to face the problems and these people. I have faced a lot of tough men in this business, and I donīt step down, because I believe in what we do, you know. So I say OK, letīs work this out a little bit different, we got to make it a little bit better, but through the toughness we get on stage with this just like a woman show, and women has always had troubles, We have always been the ones behind, although we are in front on the stage when entertaining.

I believe that this is our time. I try not to bother God too much with my prayers and requests, but I know that because of my prayers, and because of what I believe in, I know that it is going to come. And I can only say thank you, and this is our time, this is the time that is blessed, and the things that are happening now for us in our music life are blessed. Well, itīs not that Iīm looking for the big major break through, but I do know that something is happening right now. I donīt rush things. I take it day by day, I let it happen. The blessings are making the road for us.

 Gospel United, was one of the biggest and greatest things for me, and I will not let it go. My greatest wish and hope is to put 5000 people together, and I hope for someone to believe in me, and say OK, what do we have to do. I want to bring that many people under the sky and make an open air concert, at a price that everybody can afford, for everybody to come, and I want 5000 people singing, and I know that so many people want to do it. I cannot let it die, I will not let it die, and I will do it for the year 2000, I canīt let it go. I want people who respect and have a belief. If we sing about God, if we sing gospels, I want them to respect it. No matter who they are they got to have respect for what they are doing. A lot of people think that it is just a show, but I cannot be bothered with what people think or say. This is something deep inside me, this is real for me.

You are a very religious person. That has of course to do with your upbringing?

Yes, when you are born in a family down south in New Orleans, itīs a very catholic city, you donīt have a choice for your baptism, they baptise you because they want you to be blessed, and when you are growing older, you have to decide about your belief. My mom and dad taught us that God is love, and they taught us love for each other and for the family. In my youth I became a little curious about certain things in the religion, and I wanted to be able to get more from it, and I joined a choir in a catholic church, it was my luck and I got very involved, but I wanted to know more about God and about the gospel and about the bible. In 1976 I became sick, and I went to the hospital, and my life kind of changed. I can talk about it now. I was very ill and they operated on me, and they removed my birth possibility. I was under sedation, and I woke up, I was 27 years old, and I wanted to have 10 kids like my mom, I woke up and my mom, was looking at me, and she was very solemn, and I could see on her face that something was wrong. She told me what they had done, you cannot have any kids.

There it was, my whole life in front of me. I got so bad, I got so bad, I was in so much trouble in my own self. My soul was in trouble, my life was in trouble, and I got very depressed, but God gives you ways out, he makes you have a way out. He put something in front of me that I could not do anything about, except going in his direction. I thought that my problems were bad, but then my mom got a phone call, saying that my sister was dying in Cincinnati. My mom had 10 kids and still had young ones to look after, and she could not go to Cincinnati. My father was sick. I was the only one who was free to go, and I was troubled and in despair, but I had to forget all my troubles, all my crying. I had to pick up my life and leave this and try to help somebody else, and I said, mamma I will go, I need to go. So I went to Cincinnati in 1977, and I stayed there with my sister. She was dying and she had a little baby, but she came out of the hospital, and I took care of her. I went to a cosmetology school. I decided to stay there. I thought that I had burdens to carry on my shoulders, but they were lifted, because I could give so much to my sister. I met a baptist family which became a very essential part of my life. I went to church with them, and I started to read the bible, and I could question more, and get better answers, because one of them was a preacher.

I had been going to this church in Cincinnati for more than a year. I went there and sat up front just listening to this beautiful preacher and all the songs, and I was just going to sit there, but the preacher invited people up to join in the fellowship of baptism, and I just stood up and went there to the alter, I just went there, and he said do you come in fellowship, and I said no I want to be baptised. Well, that tore the church apart, and they were so exited. I was 27 years old, and I said, I have to do this, I need to cleanse myself, I need to leave everything behind me that brought me down, and I took the full baptism, and I went into the pool, and when I came out I shook and cried, and my life changed from that day. My whole life changed when I accepted the spirit, when I accepted Christ in my life, in my own acceptance, you know. I donīt question anybody elseīs belief, thatīs their decision, but I will pray with people when they want to pray. I donīt go around and say, I want to pray for you or with you, but I believe that it is very important to get that spirituality to my audience in speaking of love.

The Danes are not very religious anymore, you know.

No, but I believe that they are searching, and I believe that it is coming, I do believe that they have the love. I believe that it is there, but it has to surface again, and I think once it surfaces again, itīs going to be a great movement, but in the older times there were too many churches where the long finger of the law was pointed at you with punishment, never just forgiveness, saying if you do that, youīre going to be punished, and when you do this youīre going to be punished. Friends told me, why should we go to church, when we are only being told that God is  going to punish us. Many people walked away from that. Instead you should hear that God can give you joy, not just sorrow, and by bringing joy and happiness and singing and gospels into the church, you could have a new revival.

It is the same in Germany. Germany is overloaded with the gospel music, and from all over America the gospel choirs are coming to Germany, and they infiltrate everywhere, and people like it. So I think, given enough time, that is a few years, there is going to be a revelation.

Have you ever been a part of a church ceremony in Denmark?

Oh yes, and I don`t mind a preacher speaking at a concert. We have done services, and the priest is involved, and we make it together, and it has worked, but the message must come through the sound, and not through a speech lasting one hour. We have not done this so much lately, but it is a very good idea. In Harlem they are doing the same.

You have made quite a number of recordings. On one of the later, “Come Together” with Christian Willisohn of Germany, I think that your are really breaking a new path, without forgetting your roots.

Oh yes, and we have not finished working together. We are going into the studio. Thomas has written a show dedicated to Louis Armstrong. We went into the studio last November working on it, and we do it without a trumpet player as it is not an attempt to copy him. It is a tribute to Armstrong, and I will be singing all those great songs. It should be ready this year, and it is great.

You often remind me of Armstrong, your movements, your mimic and often also your sound.

I never realised it, until I saw with my own eyes, these movements. I think it is because we both enjoy what we do. Louis was an entertainer, he was a worker living on the road, he liked to be up on that stage – same as me.

Are your parents still alive?

My mom is, My dad George passed away five years ago, a wonderful man, worked all his life in two jobs. He was a supervisor in a post office, and everyday when he finished there, he went moonlighting as a barber. My mama was also a hairdresser, but she only went out to work after my dad retired.

Your brother John is singing jazz. Are there anyone else who are singing or playing?

Yes, my sister who is four years younger than me. She is a computer expert, but she is also singing, and she has got a wonderful voice. Her daughter is singing, and a daughter of one of my elder sisters, my niece, she is also singing, and I brought them over here, and they will be back again for Christmas time.

How come that it seems that almost everybody from New Orleans can sing or play?

Not all of them, but the majority. Itīs something that we grow up with as kids, we have brass bands marching, we have music in the streets all the time. We learn it in school, we learn it at home and there is always singing in the house.

How did you start. You were in a choir, The Golden Voices?

Oh yes. I won my first singing contest when I was eleven years old, and have been singing ever since. I sang in different choirs in school, and when I finished high school I joined The Golden Voices Choir, and when I went to Cincinnati I was in a church choir too. In the studio I have been working with Allan Touissants since 1973, and it went just like a snowball, so in 1979 I decided to concentrate entirely on the music. I was a hairdresser by trade, which I keep forever, but I knew it was going to be the music. God gave me this talent for singing, but should he take it away I always have something to fall back on.

What were your early musical experiences in New Orleans?

We were brought up in a musical township, and as young kids we would go to picnics and parties, and some great musicians were playing there, so I was inspired by the musical tradition. I have had the change to play with many of the greats, and it has been a wonderful experience.

What is jazz to you?

Itīs a freedom of the soul, a freedom of the mind, itīs food, itīs energy, itīs the surroundings, itīs a healing, and itīs my life.

What kind of music is jazz to you?

Itīs crazy, but for me itīs everything that I do, because I take rhythm and blues tunes and turn them into a jazz mold, because I am a jazz singer. I have never preferred to be a blues singer. I can sing the blues, I can sing rhythm and blues, that is part of my repertoire, but I never try to be like the great rhythm and blues singers. I canīt beat this people. I can love them and take what they have given to us, but I make a different kind of music. For me, my gospel music is my expression, and when I do jazz, I put my gospel in.

What about modern jazz?

Iīm not so hip on swing, and with be-bop Iīm a little bit lost. The cool jazz, where they take a horn and put it in the mouth, and blow a little bit, and never consider whether anything is coming to the people, and it is not coming from the heart, and when they play in twelve different keys, I canīt follow it. But my attitude towards music is so that if someone asked me, would you do this, I would do it, I take a challenge. If someone called me and said we have an opera for you, and your voice is want we want, I would jump on stage with my costume on and sing out loud. I like a challenge.

Did you make any recordings before you came to Europe?

I made two. One with The Golden Voices and one with the Olympia Brass Band, but otherwise my recordings started here. 1981 with the Magnolia and 1982 with Lillian Boutté Live In Breda (Holland).

Why did you come to Europe in the first place?

The first thing that brought me here was the One More Time show in 1980. It was the first time I went abroad, and when I came, I did not go to Denmark, I was in Sweden, and I loved the reaction of the people to the music – wonderful. I said, man, this is not like America. These people respect you and love you, and every song you are singing they know about. Here we are speaking English, and these people knew about Bessie Schmidt, knew about Clarence Williams, knew about all these people we were portraying, and I said this is where I like to be.

What about the future?

For the future we want to be able to use, not only the entertainment factors of the music. Thomas is writing childrenīs plays. Actually her has rewritten two of Hans Christian Andersenīs fairytales, The Nightingale and The Snowqueen, and made music for them and original songs and he can put this into a book for kids. So I think it is very important now that we have established ourselves as entertainers, that we look for something that can carry us into the future, also with educational programmes and workshops. We would also like to introduce other musicians beside ourselves, I want to share people that I think will be great for my audience. So that is important for me to look a little bit further. To be honest, I cannot think about age, how long I can drive my car. I can go on till God stops me, and you know, I would like to do that, I want to make music until I canīt make it anymore.

Georg Facius

Only if the source is stated clearly, the above interview may be quoted, copied or reproduced in any way whatsoever.