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Edward Rudolph “Butch” Warren, a D.C. native who played as the “house bassist” for Blue Note Records in the late 1950s and early ’60s and was recognized as a local jazz legend, died Saturday night of lung cancer at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was 74.
Warren, famously troubled for much of his life, was nonetheless an icon of jazz in the District. He was the reigning forefather of the D.C. bass sound. For several years he gigged regularly in D.C., weekly at the original Twins on Colorado Avenue NW and, more recently, at Columbia Station in Adams Morgan, where he played until 2010 as leader of the Butch Warren Experience (alongside his friend and quasi-caretaker, pianist Peter Edelman). His last years found him appearing on the bandstand much more sporadically, though usually with a hero’s welcome; on August 9, he appeared at a celebratory concert for his own 74th birthday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest. It was his final public performance.
Born in Washington in 1939, Warren began playing bass professionally at age 14 with his father, the pianist Edward Warren. After attending D.C.’s Coolidge High School for one year, the younger Warren went to Harbison Junior College in South Carolina to study music, returning in 1959 in time to meet and play with celebrated trumpeter Kenny Dorham at Bohemian Caverns. Only 19, Warren followed the trumpeter back to New York and began gigging steadily with him; it was with Dorham that Warren entered the recording studio for the first time in January 1960.
Other important gigs followed, including with the hard bop quintet led by Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams. That date, which produced the 1961 album Royal Flush, began a long and fruitful collaboration with Blue Note Records, which deemed Warren the house bassist for its recordings of the period. In that capacity Warren performed several sessions with Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, and, perhaps most importantly, the debut recording by Herbie Hancock, Takin’ Off. In 1963 he joined the quartet of pianist Thelonious Monk, accompanying it on a world tour in early 1964.
During that time, however, Warren also began using heroin, a particular scourge of the jazz scene; the effects of the drugs, combined with the overdose of his friend pianist Sonny Clark, took a heavy toll effect on the bassist. He returned in late 1964 to D.C. and checked himself into St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He remained in the hospital for a year, during which time he received electroshock therapy.
Upon release, Warren became a fixture on the city’s music scene, finding success as a member of the band for a WRC talk show, Today with Inga. Warren was never able to outrun his demons, however; he continued to struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, and weathered more stays in institutions along with periods of homelessness and incarceration. By the mid-2000s he was existing on the margins, evicted from senior housing in Montgomery County and playing bass more often in the Springfield Hospital Center than to paying audiences. However, after a 2006 profile of Warren by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, his friend Edelman was able to organize a regular Wednesday night gig for Warren at Columbia Station.
The Butch Warren Experience was a consistent job, but less consistent artistically. Some audience members reported that Warren played circles around his bandmates; others reported that he couldn’t keep up with them. The truth depended on the night; Warren was generally living a healthier lifestyle, with alcohol and other substances replaced at the venue by his ever-present glass of half-and-half, but he seemed to suffer occasional bouts of delusion and more frequent interruptions to his attention span. Some nights would find Warren playing a tune or two, then wandering away from the bandstand and leaving it to an auxiliary bassist.
After Columbia Station fired Warren in 2010, he continued playing with the Experience for a time up the street, at Tryst; he even made two recordings, 2010’s French 5tet and 2011’s Butch’s Blues—-the first records, after a 50-year career, to be released under his own name. But the lifelong heavy smoker was also struggling with emphysema. In 2012 he was told he had five years to live.
It wasn’t the emphysema that felled Warren, although it was related: This spring, he learned he had inoperable lung cancer. Although he underwent chemotherapy, Warren’s appearance at his birthday celebration this August was widely expected to be his swan song; Fisher’s story the following month too was even headlined “Jazz Bassist Butch Warren’s last jam.”
The loss of Warren to the D.C. jazz scene is incalculable. He was a link to D.C. jazz in its first heyday, a rarity who lasted long enough to see a second heyday. Though his performance was infrequent at best during his later years, his presence is keenly felt in Washington bassists stretching from Michael Bowie to Karine Chapdelaine.
Warren’s family is hoping to arrange a memorial service on either Monday, Oct. 14 or Tuesday, Oct. 15. This post will be updated with information as it becomes available.
Update, Oct. 10: Butch Warren’s funeral will take place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 15, preceded by a 10 a.m. viewing, at Westminster Presbyterian Church (400 I St. SW). Sunday, Oct. 20, the church’s Jazz Night will consist of a memorial jam session.
Due to a reporting error, a recent version of this blog post misidentified the date of an upcoming memorial for Warren. The memorial jam session at Westminster Presbyterian Church takes place Oct. 20, which is a Sunday, not a Friday.
Photo courtesy of Antoine Sanfuentes