Before it became a disparaged radio format, Jonathan Butler was on the smooth-jazz scene in the '80s.
The South-African born guitarist/vocalist says of the format, "I don't know what that really means. I think it should be smooth something else -- I think what we should [call it] is contemporary."
Whatever he plays, he's appearing Friday at the Kauffman Center at the Hill House.
A native of Cape Town, Mr. Butler, 52, found his groove early, touring much of the continent beginning at age 7 and releasing his first record at 12. And his musical education, like his music today, was quite diverse. "We were exposed to British and American R&B [as well as] South African township jazz and tribal styles of music," he says.
Mr. Butler holds the distinction of being the first black artist to be played on white South African radio stations. That status, however, did not exempt him from the daily struggle against apartheid that was part and parcel of his youth and, like many of his contemporaries, he took a stand against it.
"Being on the front line, it was in your face every day," he says. "[Because some] of the most powerful voices are in the arts, we all became activists.
With the inevitable consequences.
"A lot of songs were banned, a lot of artists were banned. Some went into exile, some went into self-imposed exile," Mr. Butler says. "When I left South Africa [in the 1980s, for London] I vowed never to come back because I refused to play for segregated audiences."
Even with the stardom that has since enveloped him, he eventually added another wrinkle to his portfolio: Contemporary gospel. Mr. Butler became an evangelical Christian in 1980, and some of his more recent material reflects his religious commitment.
"Before I knew it, God had brought me to a place that I was writing gospel music, just for me," not necessarily for recording purposes. Nevertheless, people at the Christian label Maranatha! got wind that he was doing that, and upon hearing it, "They went completely crazy."
That turned into the album "The Worship Project," released a decade ago, and from that came "Falling in Love with Jesus," which was reprised on saxophonist and ordained minister Kirk Whalum's second installment of "The Gospel According to Jazz." It has since become his best-known song and "to this day is very much in demand." He has appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and at services at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston.
For him, however, doing gospel is not simply a career move.
"You get artists who do gospel for the transitional thing -- to try something different," he says. "I make jazz records, but then I've been able to stay steadfast over the years."
His most recent release is "Grace and Mercy." As for the material for Friday's show, "I think they're going to get everything," Mr. Butler says. "I like to take people on a journey, when I started in South Africa."
Mr. Butler is bringing along saxophonist Elan Trotman, keyboardist Dennis Hamm, bassist Dan Lutz, drummer Third and singer Jodie Butler, his daughter.
"To me, it's just amazing that God has allowed me to do what I do," he says.
Local keyboardist Kevin Howard is opening the show.