Butch Warren: Eric Walks

22 Oct

Dexter Gordon’s Facebook page announced the death of bassist Butch Warren earlier this month, but it could have come from any number of the pages of the musicians Warren played with: trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who once championed Warren; pianist Thelonious Monk, with whom Warren once toured: or Blue Note itself, where Warren was the house bassist.

Warren was 74 when he died of cancer on Oct. 5, well known in Washington D.C. jazz circles if mostly long since forgotten elsewhere. Warren’s story was alternately heartbreaking and triumphant: early success, mental illness abetted by drugs, four decades of instability and one final encore with a return to Europe and the release of his first album as leader in his 70s.

“For nearly half a century, he (was) a ghost, a legend, a slender whisper of a man who appeared sporadically at Washington jazz venues, closing his eyes and leaning over his bass, noticeably lifting the level of play, usually without uttering a word,” wrote the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, little more than a month before Warren’s death.

It was Fisher who helped publicize Warren’s plight, finding him in 2006 living in a mental hospital in Sykesville, Md. “He had lost most of his teeth, and he seemed dazed and distracted,” wrote Fisher. “The staff at the mental hospital knew him only as ‘Ed’ until a worker on the ward got curious, Googled him, and discovered that the patient who kept asking for permission to play the piano in the recreation room was one of the lost bassists of the venerated Blue Note era.”

Warren was in his 20s during the “Blue Note era” and playing with Gordon, Dorham, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Clark, Jackie McLean and others — Gordon’s Facebook page linked to Gordon’s 1962 recording of Cheese Cake, with Warren on bass. Warren also was the bassist on Herbie Hancock’s original Watermelon Man.

Warren spent time on the road with Monk’s band and was cited in Time magazine’s 1964 feature on the pianist. “Warren’s rich, loping bass is well suited to Monk’s rhythms if not his harmonic ideals,” Time said, according to Fisher. “He is like a pony in pasture who traces his mother’s footsteps without stealing her grace.”

Shortly thereafter, Warren checked himself into a hospital; thus began the nearly half century Fisher described above.

Above is a link to Eric’s Walk, a Warren composition he wrote for his son, when he began walking, and recorded with Sonny Clark on Clark’s 1962 album Leapin’ and Lopin’, his last as a leader. Clark died in January 1963 at just 31; Warren’s problems were just manifesting themselves.

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One Response to “Butch Warren: Eric Walks”

  1. Londonjazzcollector October 23, 2013 at 1:43 am #

    Thanks for the pointer. One by one, they fall, and I sense they are not being replaced.
    I guess a musician never stops being a musician, its personal. Perhaps a few left to pursue a career in an unrelated field – most either continued to play or moved into music education, or in Butch’s case, seemingly detached altogether from the world. What else would you want to do that’s better than making music?

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