When Don Butterfield puts down his tuba to shake hands with an admirer, he knows he is meeting someone who likes to read the liner notes and credits on jazz albums. Otherwise, nobody has heard of him. These folks, a species sometimes described as "guys with glasses," can be kept quite busy scanning the Butterfield discography; beginning his professional career following the Second World War, the man has played on a stack of records that would fill several tuba cases. Butterfield studied the low yo-yo of a brass instrument at Juilliard, and in the late '40s landed jobs in the studios of broadcast networks CBS and NBC.
He also played many a symphony orchestra date, got the call for rotund comedian Jackie Gleason's series of instrumental albums, and took a regular seat with the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra. As the '50s progressed he became well established as a fellow who didn't have to leave New York City very much to stay busy as an instrumentalist. Although he did work with classic jazz outfits such as Claude Thornhill's band, much of the recognition of the Butterfield name comes from his involvement with the genre's more progressive, sometimes even aggressive leaders. Through the '50s and '60s a wide range of jazz artists became empowered by record company bean counters to cut albums with large ensembles. Much of this recording activity took place in New York City, naturally.
Butterfield was thus invited onto albums by Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, just to name a few of the jazz greats he has worked with. He also took part in the historic Moondog recording sessions for Columbia. His credits in the '70s begin to reflect more of a pop element, a combination of two trends in the music business: recording more pop than jazz and crediting all the sidemen on releases in the former style. He has continued to record prolifically in a wide range of contexts, from Oscar Peterson swing to John Cage whatnot. The tuba player did document a bit of activity as a leader in his own right , including a 1955 album for Atlantic with a sextet. Three years later he presented this group at the Newport Jazz Festival.