Butch is Back: A Jazz Legend Resurfaces
Thanks to Butch Warren, the barkeep at Columbia Station in Adams-Morgan can make her car payment this month. Thanks to Butch Warren, the sounds of surprise are wafting out of an 18th Street saloon once again, offering an alternative to the thump-thump pulse of disco nights along the strip.
Butch Warren, one of the lost giants of jazz's great mid-century burst of creativity, has been through rough times for all too many years. When I last visited him, it was at Springfield Hospital Center, the Maryland state mental institution in Carroll County, last summer. Warren was, by his own account, "really out of it" then. But he's back, living in a boarding house in Prince George's County and playing bass once again, drawing people off the street and into another place Wednesday nights at Columbia Station.
Last night, under the supportive wing of pianist Peter Edelman, Warren showed that he can still bring it. He halted conversation throughout the restaurant with a couple of solos that displayed the energy of a 25-year-old, the swing of a musician so well trained that he knows how to make it look effortless, and the encyclopedic jazz knowledge of a pro who worked with Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean--which Warren indeed did.
And now he is scraping by, desperate for more gigs, eager to find a place to live in the city, somehow managing to survive on a Social Security check and the kindness of jazz lovers. They were out in force last night--a devoted collector of Warren's work who has volunteered to try to get Butch the royalty checks that are due him for works he wrote back in the early 1960s; a TV producer who is gathering string for a piece on Warren's journey; a smattering of others who know enough about the music to realize that this man in the crisp white shirt, conservative grey suit and spanking new sneakers is a living legend. And all around the rest of the room, people who just wandered in to grab a drink with a date, hang out with friends or celebrate a birthday--which is exactly what Warren plans to do:
On Wednesday, August 8, the night before his 68th birthday, Butch Warren expects to be playing at Columbia Station, celebrating a birthday he never quite expected to see, reunited with his instrument after too many months apart from it, doing the one thing that really still makes sense to him. "Jazz," he says, "is playing two songs at once." For a gent who has had too much trouble keeping one thing in mind, what's freeing, somehow, is the chance to slip into a world where so many things are going on at once. You can hear what that sounds like on Wednesday nights in a dark, rich room on 18th Street NW.
By Marc Fisher |
July 26, 2007; 8:56 AM ET
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