On any given day, Butts alternates how he communicates through either basic English, computer terminology or music.
“Music is a language too, so a lot of musicians are really good with computers and a lot of computer people are really good with music,” Butts said. “They are kind of related, but you don’t always know that right away.”
Butts, 62, has been the senior technical support specialist for the staff at the Temple Administrative Services Building on Hunting Park Avenue in Tioga for 10 years. He’s also a non-degree seeking student at the Boyer College of Music and Dance.
For him, music and technology go hand in hand. Butts plays trumpet, drums, guitar and piano, but he said he can “make noise on almost anything.”
During the past few years, he has released a spiritual Christmas album and two other singles.
He was born in Washington, D.C., but he has lived in New Jersey for the last 20 years.
Butts first attended Temple as a music major after he graduated high school in the 1970s, but dropped out soon after because he didn’t think he had what it took to become “the next big star.”
“Whenever I get the chance, I tell kids that if they think they want to stop going to college for a while, that they should stay in for as long as they can,” Butts said. “Once you get out and start living your life, it’s harder to get back into it.”
After leaving Temple, Butts worked as a manager at large department stores like Macy’s, Staples and Gimbels, which was once the largest department store in the country before it closed in 1987.
A constant in his life was a love of technology and music. Butts got his first computer in 1989. At the time, he said people didn’t believe he owned a computer because it was so uncommon.
He initially purchased the computer for his children to use and for his own music recording. Although technology had always interested him, Butts said he eventually realized that he wanted to embrace it as a career.
“At some point, I realized that this would be the future, and I wanted to be in on it,” Butts said. “I didn’t ever think it was something I would do as a job.”
Now, Butts helps people resolve computer issues at TASB. Ann-Marie Anderson, the marketing director for Temple University Press — which is housed in TASB — said one of Butts’ strengths is his ability to explain computer technology in an accessible way.
“Robert is our go-to guy,” Anderson said. “He has to be relied upon for a lot, and whenever there’s a quirk or something, he’s on it.”
But beyond his technical role, Butts also brings his musical skills into the workplace. During the annual staff holiday party at TASB, Butts plays piano.
Butts started taking classes at Boyer eight years ago. He has dozens of college credits from taking classes like music theory, but he isn’t working toward a degree. Butts said that his musical skills have benefited from working alongside other Boyer students.
“I always took classes that were interesting to me or what I needed at the time, and that’s kind of what I’m still doing,” he said.
Butts likes to live his life through the lens of a “jazz sensibility.”
He said, for him, jazz sensibility is making something new out of what already exists. It’s about “working with whatever you have.”
“When a jazz artist tries to do a song, they don’t try to do it in a way that others have done it,” Butts said. “If Ella Fitzgerald sings a song that a hundred other people have covered, she doesn’t try to do it the way they do. She sings it the way Ella Fitzgerald sings it.”
He is taking this current semester off to apply some of his music education outside the classroom. Butts performs as a duo and trio at corporate events, leads the music at his church and helps people develop demos in his home studio. He primarily plays jazz music, but he plays hymns and Christian rock at church.
Butts plays the piano and leads the music at Milestone Church in Magnolia, New Jersey. He began playing there when the church’s pianist left the congregation. Music is how Butts stays connected to God, he said.
“I love playing in church,” Butts said. “I don’t necessarily like being the boss, but on the other hand, it also means I have the opportunity to help develop the others.”
Despite all his other responsibilities, music is an essential part of his identity and how he sees the world.
“Music for me is a very important part of my life because music allows me to express my feelings and also to experience the feelings of others,” Butts said. “Music is something that helps me to relate with all different kinds of people.”