Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Books on Bud Powell: Bebop, Budism and the Beyond

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Why do I care when Powell was hospitalized or how his stay meshes with his performing and recording schedule? Not because of a morbid obsession with the apparently unknowable nature of his pathology, which I don't find all that meaningful in itself. My fascination is insep­arable from my interest in his art, and the mystery of how it wilted and blossomed, blossomed and wilted, for twenty years, never entirely dis­appearing, yet always averting the sustained brilliance that would have represented a complete fulfillment of its original promise. With Powell we are always listening beneath the surface for premonitions, disclo­sures, revelations, the deepest and most profane secrets. His disposition and technique obviously derive from different parts of his brain. Some­times the technique fails him, but the ideas and emotions are vividly specific; at other times, the fingers do his bidding precisely, but the bid­ding is mechanical and remote.”
- Gary Giddins, Bud Powell: Strictly Confidential, Visions of Jazz.

Wherever he went, Dizzy Gillespie was always teaching.

As one of the creators of Bebop, he taught many of the musicians on 52nd Street during its heyday in the 1940’s how to play it, either by musical notation and/or by anecdote.

And since he was there at its inception, he also offered those of us who were later followers of Bebop a historical perspective on other founders of this style of Jazz.

I remember Dizzy holding court during a set break at a club in Los Angeles with a bunch of young musicians when someone raised the question of the significance of pianist Bud Powell to bop.

At that time, Bud had pretty much faded from the Jazz scene in the US and was living in semi-retirement in Paris.

Dizzy got a serious look on his face and turned to the musician asking the question and said:  “See what happens when you have a genius mind for Bebop but don’t have to breathe through an instrument to play it?”

[Seemingly as though he had been there, too, when Dizzy made his comments about Bud, many years later, Bob Blumenthal would write in his insert notes to the CD reissue of The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings: “Bebop is a language of long lines and intricate accents, so a pianist – whose phrase lengths and rhythmic shifts are not determined by the need to breathe – is uniquely suited to enter into realms of eloquence within the vernacular. Powell was arguably the supreme bebopper.”]

I have no idea whether Diz was being intentionally abstruse when he made that comment, but as I would come to understand over the years, his remark was fraught with layers of meaning as regards Bud Powell the person and the music of Bud Powell, the pianist and composer.

One thing that I immediately comprehended from what Dizzy had to say about Bud was that Bud got Bebop from the mind to the hands as fast as anyone that ever played this style of Jazz.

When Bud was all there and together, he played Bebop piano with stunning speed and virtuosity. His improvisational ideas came so fast and furious that it was all I could do to complete one side of an LP at one sitting. I would listen to a few tracks and then take a break so I could absorb it all.

The significance of phrases like “being all there” and “the mind of Bud Powell” didn’t really have an impact on my early understanding of Bud mainly because I was not a devotee of his music.

While I listened to snippets of it, admired what I heard and was “amazed” by it, I really did not review it comprehensively until after I bought CD boxed sets of his Blue Note/Roost and Verve recordings when these were issued in the 1990’s.

And, as is often the case, the insert notes that accompanied these compilations afforded me the basis for a deeper appreciation and understanding of Bud’s music and the personal context in which it was created.

Bob Blumenthal’s writings that accompany the Blue Note/Roost set were very illuminating as were those by Peter Pullman who offered the commentary for the Verve set.

Peter Pullman’s notes also included a series of interviews with pianists who’s styles were heavily influenced by Bud including Toshiko Akiyoshi, Walter Bishop, Jr., Barry Harris and Marian McPartland and thoughts by other Jazz musicians and Jazz notables on Bud and his music such as Johnny Griffin, Max Roach, Jackie McLean and Ira Gitler.

The music and the commentaries on these boxed set enabled me to reach back in time and sample Bud’s music as it was being made as well as providing me with a broader context in which to understand Bud life.

So, too, have two recent books about Bud, one not surprisingly by Peter Pullman who has continued his research on Bud since the 1994 Verve annotations.

I found two brief reviews of Mr. Pullman’s book that I thought might be of interest.

The first is by Sebastian Scotney and it was posted to the London Jazz News blog.

© -Sebastian Scotney, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Peter Pullman, Wail – The Life of Bud Powell

“From every page of Peter Pullman's in-depth biography of Bud Powell, the reader gains a sense of witnessing the work of a genius at close quarters. The book is a mesmerizing portrait of the elusiveness of a man who seldom had much to say for himself in words, but whose presence as a musician was unique and whose influence has been lasting and irreplaceable.

In a note inside the jacket of the book, Pullman gives the background to the book, and the briefest of impressions of quite how much hard graft has gone into it: “...In the nineties I was part of a team at Verve that produced, for issue on CD, that label's classic LP releases. A booklet that I wrote and edited, to accompany five CDs of Powell's music, netted me a Grammy nomination. I then looked to expand that work into a biography. The research ended up comprising thee hundred formal interviews and five hundred informal ones..."

This book, then, is the culmination of nearly two decades of painstaking work . When the going got tough,
Pullman just kept going. When the New York State Office of Mental Health declined to give details of Powell's psychiatric records from his time in mental institutions, Pullman didn't flinch. He took a legal challenge all the way to the state's Supreme Court to get hold of the documents, and won. He has also probed police and FBI records. And episode after episode in Powell's career is brought to life by the accounts of eye-witnesses. We get to know “the Stare” (invariably capitalized), the "laconic fragility" of a man whom Ellington, Parker, Max Roach, and many others explicitly recognized as a genius.

Pullman doesn't shy away from probing the complex issues around the music and the economics of it. Wherever he can, he likes to nail a question with a clear answer – he gives a particularly full account of how the New York cabaret card affected musicians in general, and Bud Powell in particular.

The people around Powell, their motivations, the mixture of hero-worship, love, solicitousness, genuine concern for him, their desire to control him, to earn from him, to interact with him, all add up to an astonishingly rounded picture.
Pullman's restlessly questioning stance – where necessary - when interpreting their accounts, always deepens the perspective and the context. Detachment can be a good thing too. Pullman suggests that musicians seeking the inspiration they wanted and needed from him found it more comfortable at a safe remove : “His genius could be admired, and was often better appropriated, from a distance.”

The book gives lively accounts of recording sessions, accounts of how people reacted to hearing Powell play live. There are also the touching stories of what happened when Powell suddenly found himself back at the piano after a period of incarceration, and of those moments when drink or drugs took hold, and he fell apart musically.
Pullman also muses thoughtfully on the might-have-been, if Powell had not been condemned to spend time in mental institutions. Powell was a huge musician, but in his unpredictability he constantly gives tragic meaning to Cocteau's statement that “life is a horizontal fall.”

If the book had been taken under the wing of a publisher with more resources, it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book. The essence of this music is that it will find its way out, whether official channels give it permission or not; and in an analogous way, this necessary, deeply-lived book has emerged with all of the humanity it describes in both its subject and his music. A completist or a trainspotter might note the lack of a bibliography or a detailed chronology - although the latter is available on the book's website – www.wailthelifeofbudpowell.  

But that would be to miss the point, to ignore the sheer scale and richness of what actually is there. The book sometimes seems like an inexhaustible well of memories and research. One jazz writer told me that Pullman “may now have set the bar for a biography impossibly high for the rest of us.” That particular plaintive riff will surely be heard again.

The book is nominated for the Jazz Journalists Association award for Book of the Year later this month. Whether it wins or not,
Pullman's biography of Bud Powell deserves to be read, dipped into, lived with, by an audience well beyond jazz, as a vivid portrait of the man, the "artiste maudit", the unknowable genius, in full.”

[N.B.: Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland (St. Martin's Press), by Paul de Barros won the 2013 Jazz Journalist Book of the year award.]

And, not without a touch of irony, here are the very same Paul de Barros’ reviews of Mr. Pullman’s self-published work as well as another book on Bud by Guthrie P. Ramsey as published in the September 2013 edition of Downbeat magazine.

Mr. de Barrows first reviews Guthrie P. Ramsey’s The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History and the Challenge of Bebop [University of California Press] under the collective title of Unlocking the Mysteries of Bud Powell’s Musical Genius.”

© -Paul de Barros/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Born in Harlem in 1924, Earl "Bud" Powell was a piano prodigy who turned from classical to jazz as a preteen, became Thelonious Monk's most treasured protégé in 1942 and the following year was helping to redefine modern jazz at Minton's. Yet Powell has been the least studied and most opaque of the bop pioneers, which makes Guthrie P. Ramsey's The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, And The Challenge of Bebop (University Of California Press) and Peter Pullman's self-published Wail: The Life Of Bud Powell especially welcome.

Ramsey, a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania, takes a Black Studies/New Jazz Studies approach, amplifying on his 1994 Ph.D. thesis about Powell. Ramsey offers not a biography but a theoretical rethinking of Pow­ell's life and work through a sociopolitical lens that takes in race, class, gender, the music in­dustry, criticism and black culture, explicitly re­jecting the "old musicology" notion that music exists in a timeless, universal place unattached to historical circumstance. In one of his most convincing chapters, he unpacks the received notion that bop was an anti-commercial "art music" that turned its back on vernacular black culture, pointing out that beboppers worked in a commercial milieu and never severed ties with blues and popular song form. Ramsey then brilliantly ties this nuanced view of bop's innova­tions to the whole notion of "genius" that attached to Powell, suggesting that the word was code for the (then-forbidden) assertion of black manhood.
Makes sense. Though sometimes Ramsey lets theory cloud the facts. To wit: though the notion of Powell's genius may have conveniently turned on falsely believing he waged an epic struggle against a stereotypically emasculating woman—namely, his caretaker in Europe, Altevia "Buttercup" Ed­wards—unfortunately, it wasn't false: Buttercup, at least to judge from the evidence Pullman has unearthed, did exploit (and drug) Powell.

In his penultimate chapter, Ramsey offers detailed parsings of various Powell solos, with the goal of showing that the importance of Pow­ell's music isn't, as we have read for years, how "advanced" his ideas were in relation to previous styles, but how they are "sonic symbols" repre­senting ideals of race advancement against social oppression. But Ramsey doesn't offer analyses that break much new ground. With its 16 musical examples and dense theoretical vocabulary, Ram­sey's book will not appeal to casual readers. But it is an important, thoughtful work for those wishing to probe beyond clichés.

Pullman, in his exhaustive biography, goes a long way toward exposing some of the most notorious of those clichés — particularly the 1945 beating so often used to "explain" the pianist's "madness" and the 1951 drug bust in which Monk was said to have taken the rap for Powell. Like an archaeologist cataloging shards, Pullman cobbles together a heartbreaking composite of a man who left few traces behind. A picture emerges of a pathologically introverted, angry, driven adoles­cent and sometimes eerily out of touch man who was obsessive about music but had no friends and was apparently unable to sustain any kind of normal personal relationship — despite fathering a child with his girlfriend, entering into a marriage of convenience and living for several sedated years with Edwards and for a few more under the wing of French graphic artist Francis Paudras.

Because he spent so many years in mental institutions (where he endured shock treatments), Powell missed crucial moments that might have elevated his reputation. Was Powell crazy? Or the victim of a malevolent, racist psychiatric establish­ment? Pullman won't offer a direct answer, but his evidence suggests that Powell suffered from what today would be diagnosed as autism: obsessive, drawn to repetition, unalert to social cues and pro­foundly childish. These symptoms were apparent long before he was struck with a police baton.

But Wail is far more than a myth-buster. Read­ing its vivid, detailed account of 52nd Street is like watching a movie. Though Pullman is not strong on musical detail, his accounts of the sessions are readable and sensible. While his obsession with other detail — not to mention an annoying fussiness about racial terminology and the use of the word "the" in front of proper nouns — cry out for an editor, his punctiliousness insures that Wail will serve as the standard reference for some time.”

In the following video tribute, Bud performs his original composition Tempus Fugit with Ray Brown on bass and Max Roach on drums. It was recorded in New York City in 1949. Please click on the “X” to close out of the ads.

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