It looked like he had it all. In L.A., in 47, it looked like he did.
I mean, married to Vivian Dandridge — movie star, of singing Dandridge Sisters! Got out of the Navy, they made him house pianist at Billy Berg’s before he could take the uniform off. Just a kid from Paducah, Kentucky, right place, right time, right stuff. Polite, do arrangements, show up, play swing or bop. Warren learned music of the day and rode winds of wartime change moving very fast.
So it looked like he had it all everything learned leading Navy bands during war in California, playing Hurricane Club on Central Avenue, later Billy Berg’s in Hollywood with Diz and Bird, surrounded by musicians living right across the street
But loss drained Warren’s heart, leaving hunger never filled, even as he grew — 200, 300 pounds more when I knew him. But even then, he must have expected to lose, because he lived in a world corrupted .
Tainted, corrupted, full of pain … Oh, how it broke the hearts of the musicians, he said, when Slim Gaillard would bring Frankie Laine up to sing Shine in our jam. But Slim gave him a chance at Billy Berg’s, Slim brought in Dizzy and Bird hard to live in a world divided into black and white, junkie and straight.
So even when America looked promising, and black veterans thought, Now’s the time, everyday another hole in Warren’s heart. Though thin in photos from 49, hunger shadowed him even then.
It wasn’t like I was on a diet or nothing, he says, showing photos, it was just I hadn’t had a chance to stop and eat nothing yet.
So don’t let old photos fool you. Loss was always draining Warren’s heart.
First, he lost his wife.
We didn’t have any home life, he says, head shaking. She was a vocalist, fine-looker, beautiful lady. The agent didn’t want us on the same job, afraid of something happening, figured a girl’d be more sociable if the husband wasn’t around. We were strangers when we’d meet.
Then he lost his friends.
When you’re surrounded by dope fiends, it’s a fight, man, says Warren, now in tears. Everybody shooting up, you’re staying clean it’s hard, man. People are distant to you, you’re not one of them. You beg them, but they just go and do it, everybody telling you, Come on, man, you can’t fight it ‘ Ah, what a sad feeling. Shakes his head. What a sad feeling losing all your friends. Hampton Hawes, we ran around together Oh, he cries, and nothing can fill the holes in his heart.
Then, in 1950, he saw Portland.
By that time, he’d been on the road with Billy Eckstine, good job, big name, but never liked traveling with junkies; hard enough just being black in America 1949. So when he met a Portland girl and musicians here said, Any time you want, come on back, he did, and never left again.
Finally had time to sit down and eat, so pounds began to mount up.
It was just a completely different life, man, just like somebody had lifted a heavy load off my shoulders. Happy — new wife, family And lots of work on the Avenue, where young boppers gathered round him.
But even then more losses were coming
First, he lost his band.
He loved that big band. Oh man, let me show you some pictures. We were doing good jobs, man, big old dance places around here Palais Royale, Crystal Ballroom, then down to the Bungalow at Seaside Doing good, man, until Dinah Washington came through and wrecked my band. Head shakes. Took my best men, made a little band of her own. Wasn’t that many black musicians in Portland, see, couldn’t replace them so it got pretty hard for me.
Got hard because by 58 most black clubs on Williams Avenue’d closed; and the family man needed jobs.
So he finally even lost bebop.
I was playing progressive piano until I went to work for a guy named Nick Marino, says Warren. One night he said, I don’t know what you’re playing most of the time. But when you do a couple vocals, it’s beautiful and people loved you.’
I’d like to keep you,’ he said, but you gotta sing more, put some melody in. Otherwise, I’m going to have to let you go.’
So that’s what I did, says Warren, showing photos — swanky places, white faces. started playing more Erroll Garner style, singing more, and we got to drawing more people, and I got to making more money, and I didn’t feel like getting away from that. So I did it for a long time, Sheraton Hotel, Kon-Tiki Room, Pinafore … had to forget a lot I’d learned, settle down, be more commercial.
And in photos — women, hand-painted ties, nice suits, and more weight . But in the 60s, jobs dried up, so the more he lost, the more had to eat.
But for a moment in the 1970s, when Basie Band called, it felt like he again had it all, in Basie’s piano chair after the leader’d taken sick; a moment he didn’t need pictures to remember.
I knew just about everything Basie’d ever done, he says.
And it worked out nice . They didn’t have music for me, though, so the bass player said, these are the changes, and away we’d go Oh, man, he says, oh man.
After people came up, saying, Oh, Mr. Basie, we loved your music. Mr. Basie, they said, we loved it, Mr. Basie.
In the early 80s, when I knew him, Warren was too heavy to get out. Doctor said, He must lose weight.
Too many Hungry Mans’, Warren said, moving wheelchair slowly in a crowded house. I want to do something about my weight.
Those days, had to eat to fill loss of his composing. I got away from it and shouldn’t have, he says. I’m sorry I did. Hurt and hunger, hunger and hurt.
Finally, Warren gets music out, plays tunes for me, growl-y voice muffled, fingers thick on small keys. And as he plays, moments of triumph rise up among loss, fill the room: sitting in for Basie, leader of young boppers, club crowds demanding his hits, on the stand with Bird and Diz, Wardell Gray, Sonny Criss, back in L.A. in the 40s.
As he plays, those moments of triumph lift losses and an injured heart emerges from behind flesh, from behind sharp suits, behind ties of silk, women on his lap, boy from Paducah fleeing loss who found peace when he had time to sit down and eat when he had time to try and fill his hungry heart.