An upright bass lies on its side in an office at the Manor Care nursing home in Wheaton, waiting for the ailing man in Room 2 to wheel himself down the hall and play “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.”
For nearly half a century, he has been a ghost, a legend, a slender whisper of a man who appeared sporadically at Washington jazz venues, closing his eyes and leaning over his bass, noticeably lifting the level of play, usually without uttering a word.
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.”
His memory has clarified of late; on good days, Butch can visit a Washington that has been replaced by condos and chain stores. When he was 8 years old, living at First and P streets NW, he delivered the evening newspapers and carried neighbors’ groceries home in his wagon. Butch attended Coolidge High School on Fifth Street for one year. “There wasn’t but 10 blacks in the school, and 800 whites,” he says. “They thought all black kids had switchblades, so some kid asked me for a switchblade, and I got it for him, and he told on me and they kicked me out.”
Warren played in the high school symphony, and he played basketball, and he played jazz at home, where his father, an electronics technician at the U.S. Bureau of Standards who was also a pianist, and his mother, a typist at the CIA who was also a singer, welcomed in touring black musicians who were not allowed to eat in the places where they worked.
Warren remembers tooling around town on his motorcycle when he was 16. He recalls driving over to St. Elizabeths, long before he was a patient there, to check out the pretty girls who would hang out on the hospital’s verdant grounds. He remembers a day years later, in Manhattan, when he stole a hot dog and a cup of coffee from Ray Charles.
And then there are the gaps, the years when he played mainly for his fellow patients, when his wife moved with their daughter to California, when he couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t take his meds. He lost the instrument he loved, “my good bass,” during the riots that swept through the District after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; Warren recalls “guns and police and a club I played where they wouldn’t pay me, so I broke the bass and got in a cab and left.”
The bass he has now isn’t the best, but it’s what keeps him rolling down the hall to the room where he finishes off a can of Ensure, hears someone mention Miles Davis, lifts his bass and dives into “If I Were a Bell,” the number from “Guys and Dolls” that Davis turned into a jazz standard. Butch Warren’s gaze is somewhere far; he leans hard into his bass, his fingers skip in all directions and for a few moments, the gaps in a hazy life fill in.