“Listen to the music, and that's who I am."
As the summer of 1959 drew to a close, 19-year-old Butch Warren heads to NYC by train with his German upright bass in tow. The experience of performing with so many Jazz greats would only last six years, but the legend of how he got there is now a part of Jazz history.
That year, at one of Washington DC's premier Jazz clubs, the Bohemian Caverns, Warren made an important musical connection. Kenny Dorham's group were waiting on the bass player, so Butch asked if he could sit in. Dorham replied, "Baby, if you can fill this gig, you can make it!"
Butch then spends his 20th birthday playing a six-month engagement with Dorham's quintet at a Brooklyn club called the "Turbo Village." The Quintet featured Steve Kuhn on piano, Charles Davis on baritone sax, and drummer Buddy Enlow, from whom Butch was renting a room.
"Kenny played a lot of up tempos, fast songs,” Warren Recalls. “You had to have your chops to work with them."
Edward Rudolph Warren was Eddie and Natalie Warren's only child. He was born on August 9, 1939 at 12:40pm at Washington DC's Garfield Hospital, weighing in at 6 pounds, 9 ounces and 18.5 inches long. His baby book bears his mother’s careful inscriptions marking the first six years of his life: Crawling at seven months and standing at nine, May 14, 1940. Below his one-year photograph his mother carefully wrote, "note his finger. He's pointing at a bus passing by." Butch's
parents loved their son deeply, his mother writing "To My Baby: May best wishes and life's richest blessings shine upon you as the golden chains of affection draw us ever close through the years to come." Natalie Tatum Warren was a typist at the Central Intelligence Agency where she worked for twenty years. She was also a singer with a beautiful voice who enjoyed singing at home.
His father, Eddie, was well known in Washington musical circles as a Jazz pianist and an organist. By day he was an electronics technician at Walter Reed Army Medical Laboratory. It's when Billy Taylor, who played with Duke Ellington, left his bass at the Warren home for safekeeping that young Butch discovered his passion for the instrument.
"It's funny, but I liked the way the bass smelled. It has a lot of rosin on it and everything, and I just fell in love with it. In love with the instrument. I liked everything about it, the sound, the smell, everything about it. It was like a woman…shaped like a fiddle."
At home musicians dropped by all the time for jam sessions. It is here that Butch met and played with Jazz violinist Stuff Smith, Jazz organist Jimmy Smith and many others. The Warren house was known in the neighborhood as a place of higher musical learning influencing many other Jazz musicians like his uncle, guitarist Quentin Warren, and drummer Billy Hart, who went on to have an impressive Jazz career including playing with Jimmy Smith.
To Hart, Butch was a big inspiration who was gifted and talented, someone who everyone looked up to not only as a great musician but also as an athlete. He remembers Butch catching fly-balls with one hand. "He could have been great at anything, he didn't suffer from lack of confidence."
Butch's father instilled in his son the love of music as well as the instruction to prepare Butch properly, despite the challenges his family faced in segregated Washington. Eddie also made sure to connect Butch with influential players, including tenor sax player Charlie Rouse, who later played many years with Thelonious Monk.
"You have to practice,” Warren says. “You have to be able to hear, hear the notes. I didn't have perfect pitch when I started playing. I asked Billy Taylor, the bass player, he said it's all melody. He said listen to the melody, and put the bass in it."
Butch was sent to Julliard-educated Joseph Willens, to learn bass the proper way. At 16, Butch had a driver's license and access to a car to drive his bass around to gigs. In public school he played classical music at mostly white Coolidge High School. He then headed to Harbison Community College (1957-1958), a historically black junior college in Irmo, South Carolina. His college roommate barely remembers Butch leaving his room, where he literally spent eight hours a day practicing.
Back in New York, Donald Byrd introduces Butch to Herbie Hancock on the bandstand at the Five Spot Cafe. That night Sonny Red was also there on alto sax. Hancock was running late, but the gig was significant for both musicians as this night was the beginning of an important musical relationship.
Herbie Hancock fondly remembers his early years with Butch Warren. “Butch was always eager to expand his musicianship and creativity," he says. "I remember his bright smile and warm personality that helped make him a joy to work with. For a short while, he, [drummer] Billy Higgins and I were the new "house" rhythm section for Blue Note Records. Although his formal music education seemed to me to be somewhat limited, his capacity to grow through experience was not. He was the kind of bass player that you could always depend on for the "groove." Consistently, he and Billy Higgins were always tearing it up for the Jazz fans. The crowd loved to hear them play.”
The gigs led to a chance encounter with Blue Note Record’s owner Alfred Lion. It is here that Butch also made significant recordings with pianist Sonny Clark and drummer Billy Higgins until Clark died suddenly in January, 1963. Clark’s passing took a toll on Butch, who was called by Lion to identify Clark’s body at Bellevue Hospital’s morgue as his wife and child Eric waited in the car out front.
All told, Butch played on at almost half of the sessions that were made at Blue Note between 1960-64 including work with Jackie McLean (A Fickle Sonance, Vertigo),Kenny Dorham (Una mas), Donald Byrd (Royal Flush, A New Perspective), Dexter Gordon (Go!,A Swingin’ Affair), Hank Mobley (Straight, No Filter), Joe Henderson (Page One), Grant Green (Feelin’ The Spirit) , Horace Parlan (Happy Frame of Mind), Sonny Clark (Leapin’ And Lopin’), among others. He played on Herbie Hancock’s first date as a leader, “Takin Off.” Butch’s bass line on “Watermelon Man” is considered a classic.
His work with Thelonious Monk from 1963-1964 was significant. Bassist John Ore who walks off the bandstand one night, never to return, grooms Butch to take his place at Nellie Monk’s urging. With Monk, Butch traveled the world, including tours to Japan and throughout Europe. He also records “It’s Monks Time” with the quartet on CBS records.
At age 23, Butch was musically challenged - being the youngest bass player to ever perform with the Monk quartet - but also limited by Monk, who preferred hard-thumping rhythms to Butch’s already fully developed bow technique.
"(I was an) understudy. Understudy of Monk."
Nonetheless, the reputation he earned playing with Monk was cemented his place in the Jazz world.
"He said ‘you make my music sound better.”
By May of 1964, Butch was overwhelmed by the New York Jazz scene. Many musicians say at the time it wasn’t about getting to NY -- that was the easy part. Rather, it was about leaving New York. The lifestyle was addictive and fast, music was everywhere, and the rent was relatively cheap.
"To me, Jazz was a good life when I lived in New York …The Good Life…when you explore it alone. That's the way I look at it."
After six years, two weeks shy of a major performance at Carnegie Hall, Butch left Thelonious Monk, his recording career, and his reputation as working musician. Like many others, he simply disappeared from the scene.
Back home in Washington, Warren performed regularly, including a brief stint on WRC-TV’s “Today with Inga” in the studio band until, tragically, at age 25, mental illness side-tracked him for the next four decades.
Butch Warren has carried around these compositions since the early sixties in hopes of one day leading his own record date. Finally, this music is Butch’s story, “Butch’s blues.”
"Jazz is freedom. Musical freedom ... Makes everybody feel free."
released January 1, 2012
Butch Warren - Bass
Michael Thomas - Trumpet
Buck Hill - Tenor Sax
Chris Watling - Baritone Sax
Lyle Link - Alto and Soprano Sax
John Jensen - Trombone
Nasar Abadey - Drums
Robert Redd - Piano
Amy Cavanaugh - Cello (Butch's Bossa)
Pat Cavanaugh - Guitar (Butch's Bossa)
Marshall Hawkins - Additional Bass (I Hear You)
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