For six years back when jazz was still at its mid-century crescendo of creativity, Butch Warren was the house bassist for Blue Note Records, a position that put him on dozens of the music’s most famous albums. In the early ’60s, he was the engine, the foundation, the timekeeper, the insinuator, on recordings starring Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon and Stanley Turrentine. He played the Apollo Theater with Abbey Lincoln, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. He appeared at Carnegie Hall with jazzman Jackie McLean.
He was steady, smart, sexy. His unobtrusive play; long, elegant fingers; and physical, fluid control of the instrument made him a desirable sideman to New York’s jazz elite. Time magazine described Warren in 1964 as playing “like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace.”
And then he seemed to vanish. Came home to Washington. Disappeared into the inpatient ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast. Occasionally, he’d burst onto the scene again, appearing at the old Embers club on Connecticut Avenue or leading the house band on a morning talk show on Channel 4 — until the day three white toughs followed him out of the Nebraska Avenue NW studios and threatened him for having looked too comfortable on TV with some young white female dancers who were guests on the show.
Warren, scared, quit the show — and then wondered if the three toughs had been real, or were mirages, invented by his illness. Paranoid schizophrenia, the doctors called it. Even now, he wonders about those guys who followed him. He thinks they were real. “Pretty sure of it,” he says.
Years slipped by in bunches. There were shock treatments, and there was drinking and drugging. There were angry outbursts and sad silences. And then he’d be back again, tall and respectful, in dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie, sitting in at Jazz Night at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest, or getting a gig at Columbia Station in Adams Morgan.
He played at his 74th-birthday tribute concert at the church last month, just a few numbers, until he got winded and stepped down from the stage. Warren had terminal lung cancer diagnosed shortly before that, and the chemo leaves him short of energy now and then.
“I’m still hitting the notes on the head,” he says. “I can hear the songs in my head. But I got to play every day. I miss two days and I lose my chops.” He composed a song a while back; he called it “Barack Obama.” At the nursing home, he plays the Beatles’ “Michelle”; it reminds him of a composition of his own, “Sharon and Angie,” about his daughter and his stepdaughter. He wrote it decades ago, “because they couldn’t get along with each other.”