Decades of Discord Lie Between a Man and His Music

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 21, 2006

The staff at Springfield Hospital Center -- Butch Warren refers to it only as "the loony bin" -- knows him as "Ed." He's one more guy whose mental illness got him in trouble and landed him in a state hospital 50 miles from home, locked up in a secure ward, behind a chain-link fence.

Warren, 66, looks older than that. He has lost a lot of teeth. His gait is uncertain; his gaze, distant. "This is about the best place I've ever lived," he says of the mental hospital, with its barren walls and eerie silence. After a couple of years living on the street, sleeping in shelters in the District and Montgomery County and doing a stint in the Prince George's Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro, he is grateful for a roof and three meals and the prospect of being allowed, someday, to walk up the road a bit to the campus canteen.

Hardly anyone at Springfield knew who Butch Warren is, or was, until a few weeks ago, when a worker on the ward got curious and Googled him. Thirty-five thousand pages on the Internet describe the life's work of a man who spends his days waiting for his next meal, scrounging up a cig, playing pool and hoping someone might find him a spot in a group home, a place where maybe he can get his bass back.

After the worker printed out Warren's biography from a few encyclopedias of music, and after folks started listening to him tooling around on the piano in the hospital gym, word began to spread that "Ed" was one of the great bassists of jazz's glory years.

I first heard Warren six years ago at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington, where he would show up to play in whatever combo was performing at the church's Jazz Night program. Most musicians played the church on Fridays for fun; Warren loved the "spirituality" of the gig, but he also did it for the money -- $75 cash. It was, for a time, his only work.

When Warren took the stage, folks at Westminster nudged one another to listen up: You won't believe who this guy really is. Other musicians dressed casually, but Warren wore a suit -- narrow lapels, thin tie, the look of a bebop man from 45 years ago. And then the sound: Man, did he swing. Made it all seem effortless, the essence of cool.

The stories about Warren turned out to be true. He was the bassist on the original recording of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and regular bass man for Thelonious Monk's groundbreaking quartet in the early '60s. As house bassist for Blue Note Records for six years, he's on dozens of records, many with the top names in jazz. In Washington, he was best known for his spot in the band on Channel 4's 1960s daily talk show "Today With Inga."

Half a century ago, Warren was a comer. His father, pianist Edward Warren, and his mother, a singer named Natalie, lived at Fifth and Kennedy streets NW and made their place a refuge where black musicians could go after their gigs for a good dinner and an evening free of worries about who was allowed in which establishment.

The Warrens sent their boy off to South Carolina to study music. When he came home, he played with the stars who came to Washington to play the Howard Theater and the Bohemian Caverns, guys like Stuff Smith and Kenny Dorham, who told Warren that he had the goods to play in New York.

At 19, he made the move. Warren found steady work, in clubs and on records. His steady, unobtrusive rhythm and classy, unshowy solos made him the perfect studio musician. His playing had just enough of the blues and just enough bop adventure to make him enticing to leading musicians.

But like many players of that era, Warren fell into drinking and drugging. "Heroin," he says. "I always liked that heroin better than cocaine. I joke about it, but that heroin is ridiculous. There's nothing funny about it."

Then, in 1963, one of Warren's best friends, pianist Sonny Clark, died of a heroin overdose. Warren told a French magazine that "after Sonny died, I didn't feel like working anymore." Later that year, when President Kennedy was assassinated, Warren felt overwhelmed. The magazines would say that he had simply disappeared. But he actually went home, where he felt safer.

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