We all love to see one who has experienced terrible odds overcome and persevere. With all that Jonathan Butler had against him growing up - in abject poverty, one of twelve children and in the shadow of apartheid in South Africa - it's clear that only God's plan helped him to endure trials to become one of today's most revered recording artists. A two-time GRAMMY Award nominee, Jonathan Butler has simply been blessed. He's seen success on the mainstream side of music and is known as a jazz and pop icon, but it's his passion for gospel music that has recently taken center stage.
His entrance into gospel music began with a simple worship tune. His mega-hit with Kirk Whalum , "Falling In Love With Jesus," found him not only crossing musical genres, but introducing himself to a brand new audience of gospel music lovers. He was featured in the critically-acclaimed Gospel Goes Classical project, recorded live at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with Juanita Bynum backed by a 75-piece orchestra and a 100-voice choir. The Billboard-charting CD, with renowned arranger/conductor, Dr. Henry Panion, III , at the helm, allowed Butler to revisit "Falling In Love."
Since his days of "Lies" and "Sarah, Sarah," two of his biggest mainstream hits, Butler has released two gospel albums, The Worship Project and Brand New Day , both allowing him to further spread his musical wings in gospel music. Jonathan Butler, who musically refuses to be defined, not only is an amazing talent, but is a man on a godly mission.
JazzGospelCentral.com: What came first for you, playing the guitar or singing, and do you have a preference?
Jonathan Butler: First of all, I am a singer. The playing happened later on, not much later on though. My earliest memory is being a singer first and then a guitar player. It took a while because I really needed to know it before I could hang it around my neck. I love both; they are an extension of who I am. I have come to appreciate both of the gifts I have. It's important to understand when God gives gifts, he or she better use it. I embrace it. I can't do anything without the guitar in my life. It's an important part of who I am.
JGC: What drew you to the guitar?
JB: I had a serious role model for the guitar. That was my older brother Cecil, who passed away a year ago. He was an extraordinary jazz guitarist. He was my heart and the reason for me loving the instrument the way I do. Also, my father was a guitarist and a banjo player. Those two gentlemen had much to do with the way I love the instrument.
JGC: Does the guitar allow you to be creative musically?
JB: Very creative. It opens things up. As a matter of fact, I am sitting in my studio at my computer. I woke up this morning with a guitar melody in my head. I'm trying to figure out what it's going to be. I think it's going to be a melody, so I'm glad.
JGC: Do you play other instruments besides the guitar?
JB: I play the piano also.
JGC: I know you grew up in South Africa in the shadow of apartheid. How has that influenced your music?
JB: I would say that it's influenced and shaped my life . I think anybody who has lived through struggles - especially those who came out of America in the 60s during the civil rights era - it shapes your life; it shapes your character. It makes you a person of substance because of what you had to go through. For me, I think that's what growing up in apartheid in South Africa has done for me. As harsh as those years might have been, we made it.
JGC: It must be amazing to see the rise of Barack Obama in the light of the apartheid that you experienced.
JB: Let me just say this: I am not an American citizen, but I can tell you that seeing that makes me want to become an American citizen. I feel that this country is so extraordinary that it can actually recreate itself from ashes to having meat on the bone again. It's an extraordinary thing for my children to see. I have an American grandchild today and it's an incredible feeling to know she will grow up to recognize there's an American President in the White House and he's a Black man. It's an extraordinary thing to witness. I was doing a jazz cruise and I was in the main hall [when the election results came in]. There were tears. Two-thousand people were jubilant. It was a very proud moment. I believe Nelson Mandela had words [of commendation] to say to Barack Obama. As much as I am proud that he's the President, I am proud of America as a whole. People are ready for change and ready to stand as one person. It's awesome.
JGC: Tell me about your salvation experience, when it happened and how it has changed you.
JB: It has changed my life tremendously; I'm changed forever. That's what salvation is about. When you are born again, the life you used to live, you live no more. And the life that you've taken on is a life in Christ. Old things are passed away and the Bible says, all things are made new. My salvation happened 27 years ago. My wife's brother, my late brother-in-law, led me to Christ. I remember it very clearly. I was in a coffee shop above a gas station in South Africa, in a room full of young people who were in a place of praise and worship. A lady got up and preached the gospel and started to talk about suicide. The amount of drugs and the years I was doing drugs was taking a toll on me. God knew exactly what time, when to call Peter and Paul. And He knew what time I needed to have an interview with Him. That night I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. All I can remember on the very next day was that God removed the spirit of drugs and alcohol, the spirits of anger, hate and shame; I was free. I was forgiven. I was no longer ashamed. It was an awesome day. And I continued my life in the Lord and here I am talking to you today.
JGC: What artists do you listen to and what artists have influenced you musically?
JB: Oh, there are a lot of artists I listen to. I listen to everybody; I'm kinda like a sponge when it comes to music. I listen to a lot of World Music because the music of Africa has such a special place in my heart. I listen to music from Cameroon, West Africa, East Africa, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazilian stuff. I listen to gospel artists like Donnie McClurkin, Byron Cage, J. Moss, Myron Butler, Youthful Praise, Andrae Crouch, Mary Mary, I listen to everyone. And sometimes, I listen to Jonathan Butler, too. [laughs] I also listen to straight-ahead jazz. You know, I'm not the type of Christian that can be put into a box. I didn't grow up in church and I didn't grow up as a Pastor's son; my mother wasn't the First Lady and my sisters weren't the first daughters. I am a human being first and then an artist. I wake up and I look at the creation of God and I am excited. I think God had a different sense of humor about me. I am really free in the way that I feel about things. My love for my children and my wife is paramount. We celebrated our 26 th anniversary in January. I'm out of the box. Even when I do concerts, I know someone will want me to sing "Sarah, Sarah" one day. I've talked to my wife and my family about it and I have to be me. I have come to a place where God has called me to be me. God has told me that he can use me in the church and out of the church. In the church, I feel the pull. Like, "Okay, you have to come over to our side; this way. You have to come stay all the way to the left." I have struggled with that a little bit, but I'm sort of free with that now. If God taps me and says, "Now, I want you to be a pastor," then that's fine; I'm happy to do it. But there's always been a little bit of "JB, you have to give it all or nothing."
JGC: How would you classify your music? Jazz, Gospel Jazz, Soul, Gospel, Praise and Worship?
JB: I wouldn't classify myself as any of these. I'm just a worshipper at the core. That's who I am. I am a psalmist. I'm an artist. I am a minister of the gospel and it's important for people to understand that when God has anointed you to do something, you will be heard because He has anointed you. But if you haven't been anointed, you won't be heard. You can fake it and do what entertainers do. But if the anointing is there, then that's what breaks the yoke and changes people's lives. The anointing isn't for me; it's for others to get a glimpse of the love of God. Someone will come and sow the seed and another will water, but God is the One who gives the increase. I may just be someone to plant the seed. That may be my job; that's it. Or my job might be to water the seed. But my job is not to bring the increase. That's God. That's the Holy Spirit's job - to turn someone's heart from stone to flesh. To answer the question, I am a minister of the gospel, whether that's in music or anything else. It's all encompassing. I do music through the word of God. You can ask Kirk Whalum. He's a born-again Christian; he loves the Lord and is a true minister of the gospel. It comes from that same well, even if he's writing a song that the church would call "secular". I'm sure there are pastors that have love songs and Al Green CDs. I was watching Bishop Eddie Long the other day and he was preaching on "When A Man Loves A Woman;" I thought it was interesting, him using a secular title. I think we have to change our thinking about everything. When God raises up and matures that man and that woman, they will begin to speak in a different way, even if they write a love song. I don't think God is upset with me when I write a love song. God would be offended if I wrote a love song that's degrading or demeaning. But when I am writing a love song that's edifying, I believe God is pleased. Maybe I'm a little too liberal for most Christians, the way that I live and the way that I think. But I don't think God is small. So whether I am in jazz or gospel, it's sacred to me because it all comes from the same well. I don't put on my secular suit to write a secular album and a gospel suit to write a gospel album. I don't have that much money!
JGC: What's your view of gospel jazz as a genre?
JB: I love it! I love the fact that we can have that. I have come to realize - especially in the urban church. Gospel music is powerful. The style is powerful. When it comes to jazz, there is very little that some of these young brothers know about jazz, and the history of jazz and who played what and who wrote what. I think as a musician you have to have the knowledge of the music, music that came before you so you can have a greater arsenal, a great depth about your instrument. It's not just about playing skillfully in church, it's playing skillfully anywhere. If the President calls me to do a gig, I have to play as skillfully as I can. I love the fact that there's gospel jazz. I hope that people can become more knowledgeable about music as a whole. I have noticed in some churches that some musicians only listen to gospel so their palate isn't wide enough, to me. I believe as a musician you need to have a wider palate.
JGC: What are you working on now?
JB: I'm working on two albums. One will be an instrumental and one will be a vocal project. I plan to release one album this year.
JGC: What has been your most significant musical performance and why?
JB: I would have to say Gospel Goes Classical was my best musical experience. To realize my music being played in that way, it was just powerful. It was so powerful and with so much anointing. I couldn't tell you how amazing that was.