THIS IS A STORY FOR HOLLYWOOD: From 1958 through 1964, Butch Warren earned his reputation in the jazz world as a creator of compelling, classic bass lines: “Watermelon Man,” “Blue Bossa,” “Recorda Me,” “Una Mas,” and many more. After just a few years at the pinnacle of the hard-bop jazz scene, things went terribly wrong, and his career fell apart. Until recently . . . .
Warren grew up in Washington, D.C., listening to and playing with his father, Edward Warren, a pianist and organist. Butch Warren made early professional contacts through his father with players like Jimmy Cobb, Charlie Rouse, and his guitar-playing uncle Quentin Warren, who often jammed at their house.
“Billy Taylor, the bass player, came to Washington to live, and he left a bass at my father’s house,” says Warren. “He told me to get a teacher and learn how to play the bass the right way.” Warren took lessons with Joseph Willens, a classical bassist with the National Symphony.
Warren moved to New York City in 1958 at the age of 19 and began working with trumpeter Kenny Dorham. He soon became a first-call bassist for Blue Note Records, the premier jazz label at the time. He played boldly, flexed a strong groove, and provided the foundation for legendary hard-boppers: Sonny Clark, Jackie McClean, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon.
After working regularly with practically the entire artist roster of Blue Note Records for several years, Warren joined the Thelonious Monk Quartet in May 1963. Monk was at the peak of his popularity and had just signed with Columbia Records. For one year, Warren toured with Monk, and recorded Miles and Monk at Newport, and It’s Monk’s Time [both on Columbia].
“Butch was the youngest bass player who ever played with Monk,” says drummer and NBC News Producer Antoine Sanfuentes. “He had to come up with solo ideas that were consistent and on par with Monk, Frankie Dunlop and Charlie Rouse. That’s pretty daunting for a 23- year-old kid.”
Numerous recordings and videos exist from the group, including Live in Paris, Alhambra, Vol 1 & 2 [Esoldun], and Thelonious Monk 1963 in Japan [Baybridge]. Monk, whose nicknames included “the High Priest of Bebop,” “the Mad Monk,” and (when he was featured on the cover of Time in ’64) “the Loneliest Monk,” was a brilliant musician, but he could be a difficult bandleader. Butch managed to hold his own; his solo muse developed with Monk, and his work is documented on YouTube videos and several bootleg recordings. Says Sanfuentes, “Almost every tune he played with Monk involved an elaborate bass solo.”
Over the course of a few years, Warren’s career had skyrocketed, but he had severe personal problems, exacerbated by drug abuse. He found his ability and desire to function as a bass player waning. In 1964, everything crashed back to earth, and he had to leave New York. His father Edward took Butch Warren back to their hometown of Washington, and checked him into a hospital. The next four decades were rough for Warren, who moved in and out of institutions and sometimes lived on the street. His musical career was put on hold—for 40 years.
These days, Warren has his own apartment, receives some support from social services, and usually eats at least one meal a day in a soup kitchen. He is a survivor, strong and proud, always ready to make the next gig.
Warren says, “We play every Tuesday night at Tryst [13th & Adams Morgan in Washington]. We’re doing standards, like ‘I Thought About You’ and a lot of Dizzy Gillespie tunes.” Warren has several album projects coming out this spring in celebration of his return to the jazz scene. With the help of bassist and engineer Jim Robeson, Warren has recorded an album with his D.C. band [Butch’s Blues, scheduled for a Spring release].
French saxophonist Pierrick Menuau is also releasing radio recordings from Warren’s tour of France in May 2010 [Butch Warren French 5tet, Black & Blue]. The new recordings feature some of Warren’s compositions, including “A Little Chippie,” a tune he wrote for his nephew, and “I Remember Monk.”
Sanfuentes says, “Butch has said that jazz is survival—and he will never put that bass down. Getting old as a musician without a lot of funds is hard, but it could be a lot worse. He lives paycheck to paycheck— if there is a paycheck. When you think about all of the challenges that he has been through in his adult life, you have to hand it to him.”
Offering advice for younger players, Warren says, “Don’t forget what you already learned!” Trying to distill over a half-century of jazz and life lessons, the seasoned jazz veteran continues, “Remember everything you ever learned, because in jazz anything and everything goes.”
In his tenure as a mainstay on the hard-bop jazz scene, Warren managed to create definitive bass lines to some of the most enduring jazz standards. Says Sanfuentes, “You have to see him now when he gets into it—sometimes he still seems like the twentysomething kid who hit PAUSE on his career and disappeared into obscurity.” The bass community owes Mr. Warren our deepest thanks and respect. He’s the real deal.
HEAR HIM ON
Sonny Clark, Leapin’ and Lopin’ [Blue Note, 1961]; Dexter Gordon, Go! [Blue Note, 1962]; Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off [Blue Note, 1962]; Joe Henderson, Page One [Blue Note, 1963]; Kenny Dorham, Una Mas [Blue Note, 1963]; Thelonious Monk, It’s Monk’s Time [Columbia, 1964]