Friday, November 29, 2013

Butch Warren: In Memoriam

The Times will tell you that bassist Butch Warren (1939-2013) was once a promising young virtuoso who barely out of his teen years played on Herbie Hancock’s debut album (which yes, includes Watermelon Man), then joined Monk’s band in 1963, supposedly rebuffing Ellington in the process. But ever the Sixties jazz musician, heroin and mental illness felled Warren, forcing him back home to the District where he lived in obscurity and off whatever meager royalties his brief recording career afforded him. 

Warren did not vanish.  He was an occasional performer at the One Step Down jazz club at the corner of 25th and Pennsylvania, which until it yielded to Washington’s inexorable gentrification, was rumored to be the second longest continuously run jazz club after the Vanguard--an amazing possible fact since the One Step’s ghastly wooden booths, which were constructed at perfect right angles and offered views perpendicular to the piano, were best suited for inducing neuralgia.

In the late 1990s, the One Step Down was one home for Washington’s jazz community.  It played host to scores of Washingtonians including a gnarled and mustachioed bassist once married to Roberta Flack; the zany and indefatigable saxophonist-polymath, Andrew White; a nonagenarian vibraphonist who found his bearings in jazz after a youth spent in Hitler Youth; and a certain Monk alumnus who a friend and I saw perform while working the occasional Thursday bartending shift in 1999. 

Tall and wizened, Warren was then around 60 years old but looked much older.  He was playing in the band of a middling local pianist, Peter Edelman, who peculiarly walked in with a second bassist while Warren had a caregiver of his own.  Warren started the set and in a few short minutes demonstrated that he was a wizard.  But after perhaps three songs, he repaired himself to the bar where he smoked cigarette after cigarette, chasing them with copious amounts of Diet Coke.  Without Warren, the music bored.  Warren played no more than three sequences of five minutes over the course of the evening, swiftly ceasing once he could not cope and returning to the bar and his cigarettes.  After hearing all of the legends about Butch Warren and a few commanding minutes of his bass play, it was both a tragedy and a miracle that Edelman was attending to him and ensuring that he perform in some capacity.