Edward ‘Butch’ Warren, Washington-born bassist, dies at 74

October 6, 2013

Edward “Butch” Warren, a Washington-born bassist who performed on celebrated albums of the modern jazz era before vanishing almost completely from the music scene because of drug addiction and deteriorating mental health, died Oct. 5 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. He was 74.

The cause was lung cancer, said a daughter, Sharon Warren.

Mr. Warren, who reappeared in Washington clubs in recent years, was best known for the recordings he made from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. He was discovered by trumpeter Kenny Dorham on a trip through the District and, within a matter of years, the 19-year-old Warren was working at the center of New York’s elite orbit of hard-bop jazz musicians.

As the house bass player for the Blue Note record label in New York, he helped set the pace and tone on first-rate albums by saxophonist Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianists Herbie Hancock and Sonny Clark. He also toured the world with Thelonious Monk in 1963 and 1964 and was considered a promising disciple of the wildly innovative pianist and composer.

“Warren’s rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk’s rhythms if not his harmonic ideals,” Time magazine noted in a 1964 story about the band. “He is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace.”

In the early '60s, Warren was the engine, the foundation, the timekeeper, the insinuator, on recordings starring Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. He played at the Apollo Theater and appeared at Carnegie Hall. But now he's entering his last jam. (Courtesy of Astrid Riecken)

He left his mark on albums such as Hancock’s “Takin’ Off” (1962), Gordon’s “Go!” (1962), Jackie McLean’s “Vertigo” (1963), Dorham’s “Una Mas” (1963) and “Miles & Monk at Newport” (1964) with Miles Davis and Monk. Mr. Warren also wrote pieces included on several of the Blue Note albums, including “Eric Walks,” a tribute to his son, then a toddler taking his first steps.

Lean and lanky with an impassive face and an enduring attachment to the narrow lapels and thin ties popular among bop artists of the mid-century, Mr. Warren was for decades a mysterious, silent presence along the fringes of the Washington jazz scene.

After his return from New York in the mid-’60s, he was for a few years a regular in the house band on Channel 4’s morning talk show, “Today With Inga.” Then he largely disappeared, popping up from time to time at a club gig or at the Friday night jazz shows at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington.

The Washington Post found Mr. Warren in 2006 in the locked-down psychiatric ward at Springfield Hospital Center , an institution 50 miles north of the District in Sykesville, Md. He had lost most of his teeth, and he seemed dazed and distracted. He had lost his apartment in a seniors’ facility in Silver Spring, lost his balance, lost his bass. “This is about the best place I’ve ever lived,” he told The Post.

The staff at the mental hospital knew him only as “Ed” until a worker on the ward got curious, Googled him, and discovered that the patient who kept asking for permission to play the piano in the recreation room was one of the lost bassists of the venerated Blue Note era.

Edward Rudolph Warren Jr., who was born on Aug. 9, 1939, grew up surrounded by music. His father was an electronics technician and a pianist who played at local clubs and opened his home to touring black musicians. His mother, Natalie, was for many years a typist at the CIA.

When one of the visiting musicians, a member of Duke Ellington’s band, left a bass at the Warren house, young Butch took up the instrument and fell for its smell, shape and sound. He took lessons with Joseph Willens, a bassist for the National Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Warren got his break while hanging out at the Bohemian Caverns club on U Street NW in the District, when Dorham’s bass man didn’t show up and Mr. Warren volunteered to step in. A few days later, Dorham invited Mr. Warren to join him in New York for a six-month stint at a Brooklyn club.

In New York, Mr. Warren’s talent as an accompanist, his distinctive walking bass lines and exciting, pleasing accents assured him of steady work. This did not always translate to a lucrative career.

“I lived in an Italian neighborhood and I couldn’t afford to buy pizza,” he once told the publication JazzTimes.

He began his run at Blue Note in 1961, immersing himself in the hard-bop scene, in which drug use was rampant. Heroin, in particular, exacerbated his depression.

In January 1963, when his friend Sonny Clark died of a heroin overdose, Mr. Warren felt overwhelmed. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that November, and Mr. Warren said he became consumed by the thought that there were “just people dying all around me,” he told The Post in 2006. “I felt like I was going to die. I got scared. I came home to Washington and saw the president’s body passing by the White House, and I checked myself into St. Elizabeths. They said I was paranoid schizophrenic. It just came over me; the drugs was part of it.”

Mr. Warren said he stopped playing the bass entirely for a long while after that. He spent a year at St. Elizabeths Hospital, receiving shock treatments and other therapies in the first of a long series of stays at the psychiatric facility.

For most of the past four decades, he struggled through periods of homelessness and hospitalization. He worked day jobs for a few years at a time, repairing radios and TVs at a local shop and doing mop-up at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak.

Mr. Warren’s marriages to Juanita Ellis and Stephanie Morris ended in divorce. Besides his daughter, a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed. A son from the first marriage, Eric, died years ago.

Only in the past decade did Mr. Warren regain any of the steady work or success that he had achieved in the 1960s.

Mr. Warren often defined jazz as “playing two songs at the same time,” but he also liked to talk about jazz as an expression and means of survival, said Antoine Sanfuentes, an NBC News executive who befriended and assisted Mr. Warren during the past decade.

Unable to support himself with occasional dates at the church in Southwest and at the Columbia Station club in Adams Morgan, Mr. Warren depended on soup kitchens and the dedication of fans such as Sanfuentes, jazz pianist Peter Edelman, jazz archivist Bertrand Uberall and a Washington charity called Lettumplay that sought to help jazz musicians.

His fans helped him find a subsidized apartment in Silver Spring. They raised money to buy him a bass, helped him get gigs and got him back into a recording studio. He even made it to France in 2010 for a series of club appearances and a recording of an album, “French 5tet,” his first as a bandleader.

Mr. Warren, a man of few words, was sometimes pressed to take the medications that could keep his occasional delusions in check. He found the side effects of the drugs discomfiting and dulling, and he would ask his friend Edelman, “Don’t I have the right to be crazy if I want to be?”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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