South African guitarist Jonathan Butler brings his human touch to Berks Jazz Fest

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Mar. 24—Guitarist and singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler, the South African recording artist who has been inspiring audiences since his international breakthrough in the mid-1980s, will be performing with the acclaimed bassist Marcus Miller on opening day of Boscov's Berks Jazz Fest.

They will appear on April 5 at 6 p.m. in the Scottish Rite Cathedral in West Reading. Butler will also perform in the same venue as part of the Kirk Whalum's "Gospel According to Jazz!" concert on April 7 at 6 p.m.

The performances will celebrate the release of Butler's new album, "Ubuntu," which Miller produced.

Butler had just returned from performing in Hawaii when he agreed to an interview from his home in Los Angeles. Sipping a hot drink to soothe a bit of hoarseness, he explained that the word "ubuntu" is Zulu for "showing humanity to your brother, no matter what."

Butler said he was looking forward to the performance.

"Marcus makes everyone around him sound good and play better," said Butler. "He's an unbelievable band leader, producer and performer onstage."

Butler was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1961, during the apartheid period, when Black families like his were forced to live in poverty in segregated communities. He was one of 12 children, born to a father who was a guitarist and bandleader. When Butler was 5, he began learning to play melodies — starting with the Tom Jones hit "Delilah" — on a device his father improvised from some wood.

"It was basically a little neck with one string," he said. "If you can learn to play a melody on one string and play it perfectly, the other strings will follow."

Because he was left-handed, and there was only one full-size guitar in the house, Butler had to learn to play it upside-down when he was big enough. (Later he collected left-handed guitars.)

His early training accounts for the fact that even now, Butler considers himself a melodic guitarist.

"I'm not a solo junkie or a speed demon," he said.

Taught by his late older brother, Cecil, whom he called "a genius," Butler learned to play without a pick, using South African, classically influenced technique. Once he had the basics down, he would listen to recordings of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Wes Montgomery, learning their melodies note by note.

"I used those LPs as my Berklee College of Music," he said, noting that there were no music schools that would take Black students during apartheid.

Butler said his musical influences were Larry Carlton, George Benson and Earl Klugh.

As soon as Butler could play, his father let him participate in The Butler Family Show in community halls, where people would gather for food and music, and each child would have a spotlight.

At 7, he auditioned and was accepted to play in road shows, along with some of his siblings, in productions like the 1959 South African jazz-influenced musical "King Kong." Based on the life of heavyweight champion Ezekiel Dlamini, the musical by Todd Matshikiza and Pat Williams launched the career of Miriam Makeba and other artists.

Accompanied by a tutor, the young Butler performed all over Africa, and at 12, he was discovered and signed by Zomba Records, a company founded in Johannesburg, which later became Jive Records UK and USA.

His first single, Burt Bacharach's "Please Stay," won him two gold records in 1973 and 1974, and the next year his "I Love How You Love Me," by Barry Mann and Larry Kolber, won a third. (All three are displayed on his wall.) He also received a Sarie Award (the equivalent of a Grammy).

Butler became a teen idol in Africa, and then, at the behest of Jive UK, he moved to London, where he spent 12 years as a session musician while developing his songwriting skills. He wrote a song for the British soap opera "The East Enders," and soon he was writing for the Pointer Sisters, Tom Jones, George Benson, Al Jarreau and others.

In 1985, Jive invited him to record his first album, "Introducing Jonathan Butler," and he was astonished when it reached the Top 10 in the United States. Two years later, his albums "Inspirations" and "Put My Love Away" were nominated for Grammys.

"I had no idea I'd actually break into the international world," Butler said. "I sold a million records, and I was suddenly playing in huge stadiums and arenas. It was a helluva time. I performed before Nelson Mandela (at Wembley Stadium). It's been an epic life, and I'm so grateful. I believe it's all in God's hands, guiding me to where I needed to be."

Butler credits Paul Simon for introducing Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians to the world with his landmark 1986 album "Graceland."

In any case, it was his time to emerge as a leading figure in the music world.

"Life presents you with your season, when you're ready for people to hear you," he said.

Butler has released 28 albums so far, and over the years has built a loyal following in South Africa, the United States and Europe.

Marcus Miller has been called one of the most influential artists of our time.

He is a two-time Grammy award winner (among many other international honors), and has recorded with Bill Withers, Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton and many others. His distinctive style combines funk, groove, soul, jazz, fusion, R&B and soul.

Miller has had a 15-year songwriting and production partnership with Luther Vandross, and has toured with Miles Davis, and later was a producer, arranger and composer for the late jazz legend, notably for his final album, "Tutu," which won two Grammys.

He has produced for many artists, and has composed for film and television, including Spike Lee's "School Daze" (1988), Chris Rock's "Good Hair" (2009) and the Oscar-nominated "Marshall" (2017).

Miller also broadcasts two weekly radio shows in the U.S. and the U.K. and hosts numerous jazz cruises by Jazz Cruises LLC. In 2019, Miller released his 13th and latest album, "Laid Black."

If you go

Event: Berks Jazz Fest opening night concert featuring Marcus Miller and Jonathan Butler

When: 6 p.m. April 5

Where: Scottish Rite Cathedral, 310 S. Seventh Ave., West Reading

Tickets: $59 to $79


By the way: Butler will also participate in Kirk Whalum's "Gospel According to Jazz!" concert on April 7 at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite.