Farewell: Butch Warren, 8.9.39 – 10.5.13
D.C. saxophonist Brad Linde remembers a collaborator and musical hero
As so many others had, I first heard Butch Warren on some of my favorite albums including Dexter Gordon’s GO and Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’. I had even seen footage of Butch with Thelonious Monk’s quartet in Japan on a VHS I borrowed from the music library at UNC Chapel Hill. I was just beginning to learn about all of the great jazz musicians and bands, but I immediately recognized the big beat, great time feel and melodic lines that worked in tandem with Billy Higgins and Frankie Dunlop.
I never imagined that 10 years later I would be working with Butch Warren. I knew Butch had lived a troubled and challenging existence since moving home to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, but he had recently resurfaced with a bass and a series of performances around town. A few weeks before Christmas, I called Butch to play with my quartet on our Saturday night steady in Northwest D.C. Butch was the first one to arrive at the club. He was dressed in a white sport jacket and tie, a fedora and blue jeans and tennis shoes. We started out with a Monk blues and after only a few choruses Butch shouted, “Take it out!” Butch explained after repeating this process on each tune that he liked for us to play short solos so that he had the opportunity to play more songs. For me at that time, a four-hour gig would stretch my repertoire thin, and now I was playing with this great bass player who knew all the tunes and wanted to play them all.
Due to health problems and the result of not playing the bass regularly, Butch had limited endurance and technique, but conceptually it was all there, every time: That buoyant quarter note, the logical and melodic basslines and the deceptively simple solos with sly rhythmic twists. He even used the bow. And although he might need to stop playing in the middle of a tune to rest or signal for a relief bass player, he was always engaged and listening. He even walked up and took the bow out of a bass player’s hand who was not making it during his arco solo. He gently placed it on the piano and sat back down to listen.
After that first encounter I didn’t work with Butch for a few years until I was asked to present Butch in a concert of his music at Blues Alley. I assembled a nonet and, not knowing Butch’s current experience with ensemble charts, wrote very concise arrangements of music by Butch, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham and Sonny Clark. The night of the concert, he arrived early in a pressed gray suit and brand new shoes he had purchased just for the performance. He stood front and center, reading the charts closely and driving the band through the evening. He was in the spotlight, spinning out countless gems of melodic and rhythmic ingenuity and he was warmly received by an enthusiastic crowd, some of which had traveled from New York and Philadelphia to hear the master.
Following the success of our latest collaboration, it was suggested to team Butch up with another hard-bop stalwart and one of my frequent collaborators, pianist-composer Freddie Redd. I formed a quintet with a two-tenor frontline (myself and one of D.C.’s most brilliant and original voices, Brian Settles) and we performed small-group arrangements of music by Freddie and Butch, as well as their selection of standards including “’Round Midnight,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “Laura,” which was Butch’s feature and favorite song. At our first performance at a house concert in Boyds, Md., Butch entered the room and introduced himself to Freddie as “Paul Chambers.” The two hit it off immediately, and despite having been active in New York City at the same time, had never played together.
Before the second set started Freddie began fooling around at the piano, eventually deciding on Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” as drummer Tony Martucci joined him. Butch, recognizing the tune, picked up his bass and proceeded to participate in a 20-minute version that explored the corners of bebop and the avant-garde. The two masters expanded and collapsed the form, broke up the rhythm and danced around the melody, recreating the song in a way I had never heard it and in a way they had never played it. It was completely spontaneous, completely improvised and among the most adventurous communications I have ever witnessed. When asked about his experience with free jazz, Butch told of a gig he did with Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp in Greenwich Village. He said, “The music was all the same, but the people danced funny to it.”
We continued to work together as the Freddie Redd/Butch Warren Quintet at Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz and other venues in Washington. Our last concert was a tribute to Thelonious Monk at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that featured three hours of music by their shared hero and mentor.
Butch had a great sense of humor and a big heart. Always saddled with financial difficulties, he was at times homeless and bassless. He always quipped, “I play bass and I play baseball.” He told me that he had seen several kids playing in the park near his senior apartment complex and he wanted to start a baseball league. He bought gloves, bats and balls for all of the kids in hopes of sharing his passion and experience with them. It was never realized, but Butch always had the idea in the back of his mind. The night of the house concert Butch produced a bright yellow softball from his bass case and gave it to a young girl, Ava. She came to him afterward with a Sharpie pen and asked him to sign it. (Ava's father, John, was the host of the house concert and became the recording engineer for the collaborations with Butch and Freddie.)
The last time I worked with Butch was in January 2013. I invited Matt Wilson down to Baltimore to play with Butch, and I got Freddie Redd to round out the quartet for a performance at An Die Musik Live! We expanded the idea and spent two days recording in the space with bassist Michael Formanek, myself and Brian Settles on tenor saxophones and Sarah Hughes on alto and soprano saxophone. The results featured music by Freddie Redd with horns, blues and standards with the trio of Redd, Warren and Wilson, and a live recording of a trio concert with me added, playing music by Butch. Butch really liked working with Matt, exclaiming to him in his succinct and direct way, “Good drummer! Good drummer!” About a month later, Matt invited Butch to join his band Arts and Crafts during their performance at the Kennedy Center. I picked Butch up from his place—he was waiting ahead of schedule in the lobby in his white sport coat, tie and fedora. Butch revealed to me that he had never played the Kennedy Center before, despite being born in D.C., touring through here and even after settling here over 40 years ago. He was deeply touched by the gesture and he joined the band for a version of his own “A Little Chippie” and his melodic statement of “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Butch Warren. He was so much a part of our scene here in D.C. He had almost always been here and one could imagine that he always would be. He was a survivor. He made it through hell and back and all because of his enormous talent and love for music. Even through those hardships, his genius was immediately obvious. The artistry that propelled Charlie Rouse and Kenny Dorham in the 1960s was the same artistry that supplied so many lessons and so much inspiration to the musicians in the District all the way into 2013.
Brad Linde is a saxophonist, arranger, bandleader and educator based in Washington, D.C. Visit him online at bradlinde.com.