Butch Baldassari, a Blair School of Music professor who created a cottage industry around his love of mandolin music, died Saturday at a Nashville hospice. He was 56.
“Butch Baldassari was a wonderful artist, a warm and generous teacher and a great colleague and friend,” said Mark Wait, dean of Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. “We were extremely fortunate to enjoy his affiliation with the Blair School and to learn from this remarkable man.
“Butch’s passing is a huge loss to the Blair School, to Vanderbilt and to the musical community.”
Baldassari was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor nearly two years ago. In 2007, some of his friends, including musicians Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor and Dierks Bentley, participated in a benefit concert at Blair to help defray his medical expenses.
A memorial service is being planned.
A native of Scranton, Pa., Baldassari worked in Las Vegas as a croupier before turning to music full-time. He moved to Nashville in 1989 to record with the band Weary Hearts. His mandolin work is featured on recordings by Alison Krauss, Elek Bacsik, David Schnauffer, Nashville Bluegrass Band and others. In addition to Weary Hearts (1986-90), Baldassari was a member of the bands Lonesome Standard Time (1992-98), The Grass is Greener (1995-97) and he was founder and leader of the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble.
Baldassari founded the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble after learning about mandolin orchestras popular in America at the turn of the century. The ensemble, consisting of mandolins, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass, was a popular group in Nashville.
“We surprise our audiences every time we play,” Baldassari said. “Our repertoire includes Bill Monroe’s bluegrass as well as the music of O’Carolan and Vivaldi.”
Baldassari recorded dozens of albums sold through his own company, Sound Art Recordings. They include collections of Christmas, jazz, bluegrass and classical music. He frequently explored the frontiers and relationships between different varieties of music. For example, his album Travelers mixed traditional Irish, American and Latin dance music with an instrumental lineup of two mandolins, bouzouki and guitar.
Baldassari had been an adjunct professor of mandolin at Blair since 1996. Survivors include wife Sinclair Baldassari and son Blake Baldassari.