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.

"Just people dying all around me," he says. "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. Before that, I'd been fine."

Warren stayed at St. E's for a year. There were shock treatments, but there was also a bass at the hospital, and Warren met other musicians, who helped get him out. Back in circulation, Warren kept working as long as he stayed on his medication. He played at Cafe Lautrec in Adams Morgan and The Embers, a dinner spot on Connecticut Avenue. Some years, he got by on his music work; other times, he took on day jobs, repairing radios and TVs at a Northwest shop, doing mop-up at the Naval Ordnance Lab.

For three decades, Warren was a mystery to many in Washington's jazz scene. He'd drift in and out, play a club for a while, then vanish. "There's a whole mountain of issues," says Peter Edelman, a pianist who has taken in Warren for extended periods and is keeping his bass for him. "He's rather optimistic and upbeat, but he's delusional from time to time. He can be a very perceptive observer of current events. He sees through all the charlatans out there these days."

In the 1980s, Edelman would hire Warren to play society parties, "so he could get some real money."

He played steadily at Twins, a District jazz club, through most of the past few years, but then stopped taking his pills. He'd show up and play "hunched over, swaying his arms, even drooling a bit, scaring the audience a little," Edelman says. "When we gave him the choice between going back on his medication or losing the gig, Butch said, 'Peter, don't I have the right to be crazy if I want to be?' "

Warren lived in a subsidized complex for seniors in Silver Spring until he was evicted about two years ago. Edelman says the unkempt condition of Warren's kitchen was the problem; Warren says it was complaints about his late-night guests. In any event, the musician was on the street.

"My tuxedo is gone," he says. "I don't have anything. I miss my bass. I have no instrument here, so I've been singing. Never had much of a voice, but some people say I'm singing okay."

At the hospital in Sykesville, Warren looks uncharacteristically casual in a plaid flannel shirt and khakis, but one look at his hands summons the image of the lean, sad-eyed gent standing by his instrument, staring into the distance, his long, elegant fingers flying up and down the bass, his sounds inviting listeners into his private world.

He was in that solitary place one cold day this past winter, walking around in Greenbelt, when he passed a shop with an open door. The shop's alarm was ringing, he says, and no one was inside, so he walked in to warm up. When the police came, they arrested him and charged him with burglary. Maybe that's how it was, and maybe not. What is clear is that that's how he landed in the lockup.

Not many folks have patience left for Butch Warren. Edelman has done what he can for his friend. "I understand it's not possible to save every gift from the Creator, but nobody wants to be homeless," Edelman says. "Butch can't take care of himself. But he can still play."

Warren seems barely aware that there are still fans out there, people who cherish every measure of his recorded work.

Bertrand Uberall, a mathematician and jazz archivist who works at the Library of Congress, has dug up Warren's recordings and tracked down his compositions, recorded by artists such as Dexter Gordon and Jackie McLean. "Butch is a fantastic bassist," Uberall says. "Even in the latest years, he was still playing very well."

At Twins Lounge, "People ask me all the time, 'Is Butch playing?' " says co-owner Kelly Tesfaye. "The people all respected him and gave him food. I gave him food. He needs help so much."

The Rev. Brian Hamilton, pastor at the jazz church, used to see Warren almost every week. "He usually didn't say much, but if you caught him at the right moment, he'd fill your ear. One time, we had him come to church and talk about jazz. What he said was that this was a wonderful world."

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