I am still reeling from the news. With every passing of jazz veterans, the art form seems to recede a little further into history. Their legacy, though, remains immortal. Butch Warren is not my main influence on bass but somehow I feel I had a special connection with him. At the risk of sounding self-indulgent, I’d like to relate an anecdote as a tribute of sorts.
Three years ago, I went to hear Butch Warren perform with a French quintet in Paris. As I recall, the musicians had caught up with him in NY and wanted to bring him over to France where he hadn’t performed in 30 years. I squirmed in my seat in eager anticipation. The concert began, and sure enough, Butch’s firm tone immediately brought to mind scores of blue note records that he played on – he was Blue Note’s house pianist back in the 60s– and importantly for me, his fruitful association with Monk during the 1963 Japan tour. As Robin D.G. Kelley remarks about Monk’s hiring of Warren before the tour (Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original, “Monk liked the big sound Warren got from the lower register and his inventive choice of notes – characteristics he appreciated in Wilbur Ware’s playing”. That sound was definitely present that late afternoon, preserved from a long spell of personal hardship and serious health problems. I could hear Butch huffing and puffing as his long fingers stumbled across the fingerboard, assuming unorthodox positions. After each song, he sat down and seemed to wait for the next tune call, as if to say “man, I can hold it down, okay, but don’t I deserve a little rest?” And yes, despite the awkward fingering and obvious signs of physical strain, he could sure hold it down and make his notes sing. I will never forget the sight of this giant laying down some heavy bluesy lines as if driven by a rekindled flame. At one point between two songs, I overheard the drummer winking at the saxophonist and mouthing the words “they don’t make them like him anymore”. He was enjoying that deep-soul vibe. So was I. Impeccably dressed and wearing a black Stetson hat, Butch cut an impressive figure despite his apparent fragile health.
The concert ended to thundering applause. I walked out the concert hall and lit up a cigarette to regain my senses. I was about to head home when I saw Butch come out and sit on some steps, rolling his cigarette. Petrified, I mustered my courage and walked up to him. That was now or never. I was only one handshake away from Thelonious Monk, for god’s sake! Like any nervous fan, I congratulated him a little dramatically. But that gave me a lead to ask him a couple of questions. He obliged me very nicely. Our brief conversation revolved around all things bass, strings, projection, cutting through the drums, his desire to mount some gut strings on his new bass and how unaffordable they were. When I asked the one question I should have asked from the start: “do you have any advice to give me as an aspiring bass player trying to develop his chops?” I loved the laconic answer: “Try to get a good sound”. Those words burned into my mind like a haunting mantra. A young woman who seemed to be his manager nicely offered to take a picture of Butch and me with my cell phone. However heavily pixelized and impossible to enlarge, that miniature photo exists. On it, you can still recognize Butch, towering over me (he was about 6, 20 feet). I’m so glad and grateful I shook hands with that beautiful giant. RIP Edward Rudolph ‘Butch’ Warren.
Read the Washington Post obit for a glimpse of his life here
Watch Butches’ Blues, a short documentary that traces his rocky path, here
Selected album recommendations featuring Butch Warren on bass
Herbie Hancock, Takin’ off, Blue Note
Thelonious Monk, It’s Monk’s time, Blue Note
Thelonious Monk, Monk in Tokyo, Prestige (ideally, try to get the LP on Epic)
Jackie McLean, A Fickle Sonance, Blue Note
Sonny Clark, Leapin’ and Lopin’, Blue Note
Joe Henderson, Page one, Blue Note
Elmo Hope, Complete Studio Recordings, CD 3, Gambit Records (only 2 tracks but it’s all in there)
Butch Warren, Butch’s Blues, Butch Warren