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Butch Thompson of 'Prairie Home' in DL Thursday

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From the time he was 6 years old, Butch Thompson has honed his love of the piano. He listened to his father's old records from the 1930s and '40s, watched the Ed Sullivan show, and just knew performing was the thing he'd do.

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In seventh grade, Thompson's English teacher asked the class to say what they wanted to do as a career when they got older. When it was Thompson's turn, he told his teacher he wanted to be a piano player in a nightclub.

"She didn't like that. She thought I was making fun of the whole thing, and I was not. I was kind of surprised she found that naughty or something. She really didn't believe I was sincere about that," he said last week from his home in Stockholm, Wis.

He was sincere, though, and has followed that dream to become the successful jazz pianist he is today.

"I have been extremely lucky to be able to do this as a career. A lot of it was just being in the right place in the right time. But I'm also very stubborn and persistent."

Thompson -- along with friends Bill Evans, bassist, and Tom Andrew, drummer -- will be performing Thursday at 8 p.m. in the Detroit Lakes Historic Holmes Theatre. Tickets are $22 for adults and $11 for students. Tickets are at 844-SHOW or www.dlccc.org.

Although Thompson lives in Wisconsin now, he was born, raised and has lived the majority of his life in Minnesota. He and his wife moved to Wisconsin three years ago.

"After living in Minnesota my whole life, I still think of myself as a Twin Cities kind of person. But I don't have a place there."

Thompson became interested in piano when he was a kid growing up in Marine on St. Croix. He started taking lessons when he was 6 years old. He would listen to his mother playing piano and he grew interested in the instrument.

"At the same time as just being interested because of the piano (being in the house), I heard a lot of music, and that made a big difference to me throughout my life."

He soaked in music on the radio, the Ed Sullivan Show on television and his dad's records.

"That was very much like what I ended up doing and what I do today. It was really based on jazz," he said of the records from the 1930s and '40s.

As a teenager, the piano lessons were nothing more than classical music, but Thompson collected jazz records. It was the start of the LP era, and although he didn't know what the musicians would sound like, he would order records by people whose names he had read.

"I was sending in my hard earned cash from a paper route to buy these LPs," he said.

It was his second piano teacher, an ex-concert pianist, who showed Thompson the art of performance and what he wanted to become.

"I remember the first time I heard her perform something that I was working on, it was quite a revelation -- 'oh yeah, that's what it's like.'"

In high school -- he graduated from Stillwater in 1961 -- he was taking clarinet lessons and in the school band. His teacher, George Regis, made a huge impression on him and an impact on his future career, he said.

"What I didn't know at the time is that he was a jazz musician, as well, had been while he was in college."

His teacher spotted some deficiencies in his training and straightened him out right away, he said. He had high standards and that helped Thompson.

After graduation, Thompson studied piano in college, but wasn't a music major for long. He hasn't had a piano lesson since age 20.

"I'm quite of bit older than that at this point," he said laughing.

At same time he was training, he was also hearing live music and fitting in with the musicians. He made some connections and played a professional gig with a quartet in St. Paul. He was 17 at the time.

During college, he was recruited by a traditional jazz band, the Hall Brothers Jazz Band, a six-piece band out of the Twin Cities. He was recruited to play clarinet.

"It was a New Orleans-style jazz band, which was very traditional music, and I liked that well enough. I was a little undecided about what kind of music to focus on still. I was just as interested in that as anything else."

He played with the band three nights a week in a bar in downtown Minneapolis. He was playing a lot by his second year of college, and music was beginning to interfere with his classes.

In 1962, Thompson went to New Orleans with a musician, and it ended up a great influence. He has gone numerous times since then, too many to count. Those trips set his course in life.

There was a place in the French Quarter than had just opened in 1962, and he got to know the musician playing there.

In the late 1960s, he finished with the Army, and the Hall Brothers Band opened a club in the Twin Cities called the Emporium of Jazz -- although Thompson wasn't there for the opening.

There were investors in the hall, but the band members were the ones who ran it. They were the house band and played there until 1992.

"Over the course of all those years, we brought in so many guest musicians. Everybody who was anybody in traditional jazz came through there," he said of the Emporium.

His favorite was a New Orleans man, George Lewis. Although not a household name, Lewis' clarinet was a huge influence on Thompson. Lewis played at the Guthrie in the Cities, although it was rare in those days to bring in a jazz musician to such a prestigious theater, he said.

"It was really exotic to have these older African American guys coming up from New Orleans to play in a place like the Guthrie Theater. It was just a natural, and the press really picked up on it. They ended up just filling up the place and the concert got huge rave reviews."

In 1974, Garrison Keillor began "A Prairie Home Companion," and Thompson joined him for the second broadcast of the show. From there, he became a regular. By the late '70s, he was the piano player for the show.

He led the band until 1986, when he went off to do other things. Thompson is still a part of "A Prairie Home Companion, and makes yearly appearances on the show.

"The biggest one I remember was at Radio City Music Hall where the place was actually filled for three nights running with people who had come in from all over the country because they loved the show.

"The fact that he filled up that huge place for three nights. The budget was gigantic, so he had all these people. It was just star-studded and amazing to me. I couldn't believe I was there."

Since leaving the show, Thompson has been touring on his own.

"I've got a nice schedule because it's never the same from one year to the next. You don't know exactly what you're going to be doing, which I like."

One thing he and his friends will be doing in Detroit Lakes tomorrow night is entertaining.

"The real point of what we're trying to do is play the music and make it entertaining, not just some kind of a lecture or something. It's not a historical retrospective --nothing academic about it. We're just playing."

He said he always hears after a show from someone who didn't think they liked jazz, but if that's jazz, maybe it's not so bad.

"The music doesn't get obsolete unless you allow it to do so by treating it like an artifact. Where in my mind, it's not. It's comes alive if you present it properly, and that's what we're trying to do."

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