© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
As you read through these pieces about Bud, please keep in mind that whether you agree or disagree with them, these authors have put their opinions on the line.
They took the time to think and write about Bud Powell, so while it is easy to criticize or disagree with their efforts, please remember that your criticism of them doesn’t make their views any less valid or your opinions any more so.
The important thing about all of this is to memorialize Bud Powell by having many disparate points of view of his work and art available in one place.
Our immortality rest in the minds of others so let’s honor Bud’s memory together with this blog posting. It’s the least we can do for the kind and gentle genius who gave us so much great music.
What follows is an unedited compilation of writings on Bud Powell and his music by Bill Evans, Ted Gioia, Gary Giddins, Bob Blumenthal, Francis Paudras, Peter Pullman, Sebastian Scotney, Paul de Barros, Raymond Horricks, Ira Gitler, and Kenny Mathieson with my comments interspersed throughout the piece.
The lack of editing is intentional as the purpose of the feature was to create a compendium in which the writers express their views on Bud Powell rather than to develop another original essay using the literature as source material.
The posting runs over thirty pages of manuscript so please take in the material at a pace that’s comfortable for you.
“If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell. He was in a class by himself.”
- Bill Evans, comments made after his concert at Cardin Hall, Paris, 1979
“No player realized this new style [Bebop piano] better than Earl "Bud" Powell. Other modern jazz pianists might have boasted better keyboard technique (Peterson, Newborn), or a cleaner touch (Marmarosa, Tristano, Cole), or more daring harmonies (Monk, Brubeck), or a more ebullient stage demeanor (Shearing, Garner), but none came closer to representing the spirit of the bebop movement than Powell. And none would be more influential. Powell's reconfiguration of the jazz piano vocabulary would have a deep and lasting impact on later players on the instrument. As such, he is one of those select players (others are Armstrong, Parker, Young, Gillespie, Christian, Blanton, Evans) whose influence is so pervasive that it is easy to overlook. When one person steals your stuff, it is robbery; when everybody does it over and over again, your belongings sooner or later become common property.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz
“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.
From Bob’s notes, I gained the following insights into Bud and his music:
“Time flies. And waits. It can sink the most brilliant creations in a wave of temporary fad, then bring them back into focus when the hubbub subsides. Such has been the case with bebop generally, and with one of its fountainheads, pianist Bud Powell.
It takes nothing away from Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and other innovators of the period to state that Bud Powell may have been second only to Charlie Parker in terms of the influence he provided to his contemporaries and succeeding generations of musicians. He definitely set the standard for how the piano should be played in the modern idiom and much more, including the most diverse streams of modernism that followed from bebop. While it is generally acknowledged that Powell translated the ideas of Parker and Gillespie to the keyboard, and became the MASTER of the blinding up-tempo solo, his contributions at medium and slow tempos, as a composer, and as a trio and quintet leader were also essential.
At the same time, Powell was one of the most INCONSISTENT of the jazz immortals. The ebbs and flows of his work were directly linked to his emotional stability. Other giants had their addictions, idiosyncrasies and assorted weaknesses; but the degree to which Powell's state of mind affected his career was unprecedented. He entered a mental institution for the first time in 1945 and returned on several occasions, for stays that often extended over a year. To compound these PROBLEMS, Powell had an alcohol dependency and according to some reports also abused drugs. Recorded examples of him making music in a totally healthy, clear-headed condition may not exist.
Yet, Under the right circumstances, Powell could be a musician of absolute BRILLIANCE, Many of those instances are contained in this set, which includes all of Powell's recordings for Roost and Blue Note.”
Peter Pullman’s notes to the Verve boxed set 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 books about Bud, one not surprisingly by Peter Pullman who has continued his research on Bud since the 1994 Verve annotations.
But let’s start with Francis Paudras’ A Portrait of Bud Powell: Dance of the Infidels [1986 Editions de I’Instant; 1998 DaCapo Press].
"A heartfelt and deeply involving portrait. This often tragic tale, written with sincerity and affection, gives an inside look at an amazing musician, plumbing the depths of his life and music. Francis Paudras has captured the genius who was Bud Powell in this fascinating book, and Rubye Monet's translation has in no way diluted the beauty of his writing."
"Francis Paudras is a hero who has dedicated his life to preserving the history of the great cultural figures of jazz through film, video, and radio performances; without his efforts many of the profound contributions of these artists would be lost. This book is a wonderful living document of his personal relationship with the genius Bud Powell, whose work will continue to shape jazz's legacy for generations to come."
In terms of the style of Jazz referred to as Bebop, what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone, Dizzy Gillespie to the trumpet, Bud Powell (1924-1966) was to the piano: few Jazz pianists have ever rivaled his brilliance.
But the tragedy of his life is also exceptional in the annals of Jazz: he endured a brutal beating on the head by the police as a youth; electroshock therapy in psychiatric institutions; physical and mental abuse from people who fed him dangerous drugs to control him; malnutrition and tuberculosis; and, perhaps most painful of all, the indifference of his contemporaries to his talent.
Yet his musical intuition, helpless innocence, and humor made him an endearing and sympathetic character — especially to Francis Paudras, a young Jazz fan who met Powell in the late 1950s.
Paudras's generosity was boundless: he helped free Powell from unfavorable surroundings, gave him a home and a new life, encouraged him to create some of his finest music, and cared for him as if he were his child rather than his idol.
Paudras named his biography Dance of the Infidels after one of Bud’s more famous compositions. It is one of the more moving Jazz memoirs — and served as the basis for Bertrand Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon. Here, for the first time in English, is a portrait of a friendship as surprising and heartbreaking as Bud Powell's timeless music.
The context for a full appreciation of what Francis Paudras has accomplished with heartfelt tribute to Bud Powell with his biography Dance of the Infidels can best be explained in this excerpt from a 1964 interview that pianist Bill Evans gave to Randi Hultin in Oslo, Norway.
“Of all the musicians I ever loved—Bird and Stan Getz and Miles and lots of others that no one even knows I listened to—it was Bud who influenced me the most.
I was fifteen when I first heard Dexter's recordings with Bud. Then came Bird and Dizzy and the big bands ... they all influenced me, but Bud more than anyone else.
He was so expressive, such emotion flowed out of him! There are different kinds of emotion: there is the easy, superficial kind, and there is another kind, that doesn't make you laugh or cry, that doesn't make you feel anything but a sense of sheer perfection. That's what I felt with Bud.
It's a feeling we sometimes get from Beethoven.... It's not that it's beautiful in the sense of pretty or brilliant, it's something else, something much deeper. When people talk about the giants— Bird, Bud, Dizzy, and Miles—I think they underestimate Bud. They're always putting him down, saying he was this or that. ... But I never felt that way about him.”
Paudras’ biography makes Bud human and takes away the mythical and monstrous overtones that are all too often are used to categorize and dismiss his greatness.
Earl 'Bud' Powell was the greatest of the pure bebop pianists. His flowing, linear style, underpinned by a spare left-hand comping which had its roots in the solidity of stride piano, but translated into the angular asymmetric accents of bebop, established the dominant approach of the period, and his influence can be felt in almost all pianists active in that idiom, with the exception of the man who was very much Powell's early mentor, Thelonious Monk. While he was a brilliant musician, however, Powell was a deeply unstable character who spent much of his adult life either incarcerated in institutions or on heavy medication, which proved almost as damaging as his illness.
How and why this book came about is very directly explained in the following Introduction by Mr. Paudras who is very candid in his disdain for those who went out of their way to hurt Bud and to take advantage of him during his all-too-brief life.
Everybody wants to be in the image of God. That's why I play jazz.
- JOHN LEWIS
Before I could write this book there were such obstacles to overcome that at times I was afraid I would never do it. To begin with, there was something almost indecent in talking about Bud. How would I ever find the right words to express the intensity of my feelings, both for him as a person and for his music? I dreaded that my judgments might be deemed too absolute, my enthusiasm too excessive, and my deep emotions nothing more than blind passion. But now these fears have dissipated, leaving in their place only a serene determination.
The words that follow come straight from the heart. But they are also the fruit of a conscious decision: to stick as close as possible to my personal reflections, the thoughts I have hitherto kept entirely to myself. Rather than an anecdotal account, this book is an outgrowth of a long meditation beginning in 1956, the year I saw Bud for the first time.
I make no claim to reveal all the facets of Bud's interior world. The complexity of his genius is such that his personality, however likable and endearing, will probably always remain shrouded in mystery. Yet how dreadful it would be to let his vast contributions fall into oblivion.
If this great exponent of black American culture inspired me, a white European, to devote a book to his work, it is simply because I think his music is of universal scope. The work of Bud Powell is not only a message of love of a black artist for black people, it is also a message of great beauty, hope, and peace for all the peoples of the world.
My utter certainty of this has provided the impetus to take on the task, all the more so as Bud Powell's life and work seem thus far to have inspired no more from commentators than shopworn anecdotes and trivia. My passion springs not from some romantic infatuation, but from thirty consecutive years of deep and painstaking study of his music, a body of work I consider one of the most compelling in the history of music.
I should also add that I am quite aware of how most American jazz writers regard European amateurs, It has been said repeatedly that we have a romanticized vision of jazz and a false idea of the jazz world.
Such comments and criticisms have in no way made me want to modify my own point of view. The French may have less first-hand knowledge than those Americans who lived through these musical events, but apparently all of their combined knowledge has not enabled the American writers to produce the kinds of genuine studies that we, such true lovers of jazz, so yearn for.
Furthermore, after a lifetime devoted to this music, I still believe it's no accident that so many of the great American musicians found their ultimate consecration in France or elsewhere in Europe, where many of them came to spend their lives. From my own experience and that of other well-placed observers, I can affirm that they found our vision and ideas, not to mention our welcome, to their liking.
Many musicians felt out of place as the United States became increasingly commercial. A society where the opportunistic pursuit of immediate profits outweighed all other considerations was completely ill-suited to their artistic demands. Musicians like Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans, to mention only a few, never totally accepted integration into a system that was antithetical to their personal artistic endeavors.
In their categorical refusal to compromise, they were following in the footsteps of the classical masters of the old world. It is easy to see how they might be more at home with Europe and its romantic spirit. Many American musicians have felt a deep nostalgia for the roots of a certain European music. Thelonious Monk, for example, once said in an interview, "We loved Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, so I guess we had to be influenced by them." If Africa is largely responsible for the rhythms and the pulse of jazz, its structure, melodies, and harmonic conceptions more often than not hark back to earlier European creators. During a lecture in Houston, Texas in April 1928, Maurice Ravel said, 'American folklore? But just what is your folklore? Indian melodies? Are they American? Negro spirituals? Blues? Are they what is meant by American?"
Ravel seems not to rule out the development of a new European school that would be the continuation of classical music. He probably never imagined that the only ones to lay claim to the advances of the great classicists would be the American school represented by Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, and the like. After Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, and Lili Boulanger, after Richard Wagner, Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Europe was seeking the continuity of its romantic impulse. We were to find it in the American music called jazz, the classical music of tomorrow.
Readers of this book will soon become aware of a gulf between reality and fiction, between the facts about the period when Bud lived with me and the accounts of other writers who took it upon themselves to recount this period of time. The discrepancies are so glaring as to cast doubt on these writers' reliability in other matters and to make one realize how cautious one must be when reading their accounts of his earlier life as well. They could very easily have checked their facts by asking those directly concerned, but of course it's simpler to repeat whatever gossip comes quickly and easily to mind. In so doing, they kept alive a legend that did only harm to Bud. None of them ever bothered to take a long, hard look at his music, which is the only subject really worth our interest.
If I sometimes seem less than charitable to certain persons, I make no apologies. My only aim is to do justice to a man who, in his lifetime, was rarely treated with any of the consideration he deserved. All I care about today is to show as best I can the arbitrary quirks of misfortune and the downright ill-will he came up against time after time throughout his tragic life. In the conspiracy of silence that always surrounded Bud, there were many who shamelessly and constantly took advantage of him.
Last of all, I gladly omit those musicians who pillaged and parodied him, and the others — those who deliberately deserted his work and today feign ignorance of his very name, the better to claim the fatherhood of musical forms of which he was the true innovator.”
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.
Peter Pullman’s self-published Wail: The Life of Bud Powell covers 476 pages and is exhaustively researched. Copies of the book can be purchased directly from Peter by going here.
On the book’s dust jacket, Peter provides the following information about his career and how his biography of Bud Powell came about.
I was the first US correspondent for The Wire (UK), in 1985. I also wrote on jazz for The Village Voice. 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 more than three hundred formal interviews and five hundred informal ones.
As time has passed, I've grown more certain, that Bud Powell was among a select group and at the forefront of a unique artistic movement—and that nothing like him or it will ever be seen again. It has been my greatest honor to learn what I could of his life and his art, and to write his story.”
Peter explains how he went about researching and writing in the following excerpts from his INTRODUCTION:
“Bud Powell had been featuring the standard song "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" in his sets for much of 1949, when he was active in the New York City nightclubs on Fifty-second Street. Bassist Curly Russell, a regular member of Powell's trio then, recalled decades later:
We'd come in in the winter time. It's cold outside. And we open up, the first set Bud would jump right down (and say]: "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm". Racehorse temperature (sic). And he'd play that for twenty minutes. When he finished that, he'd go into "Cherokee". He'd come in cold—no warmup, nothin'—and your fingers are flyin'.... It got so [that] when I finished the number, I'd have to peel my ringers off the bass. They would get cramped in that position [to| where they wouldn't open. And he'd do that, he'd start playin', and [then] the time [would] be up and he wouldn't want to come down. And the usual thing [was], we'd get up and walk off the stand; he'd keep on playin'.
Russell said that Powell's continuing onstage alone was no act. He gave Powell all the credit for being just completely engaged with his own virtuosity. Further, he felt that the audience had come to expect this. Yet it wasn't a rote routine; Powell meant it, every time that he did it.
At other times, though, Powell walked off the stage in the middle of his set, leaving the musicians who played in support of him to finish by themselves. At still other times, at set's end, he apologized to the audience for what he thought was the substandard level of his sidemen's play — to their astonishment.
"They get away with murder," Russell said of such geniuses. "When you see the beautiful side of them, and what they can produce, musically, you have to go along with them." When Powell dug in at the keyboard and poured out seamless yet intricate solos, Russell said: "All was forgiven. It had to be. If you played music or you loved music—all is forgiven."
No musician of Bud Powell's era had such capacity for improvisatory excellence and was so ready to unleash it, instantly, in such concentrated form onstage. And no nightclub celebrity of any type was less available to his public offstage, especially to explain what he'd done or how he'd been able to do it.
This book is the story, then, of the least reluctant performer — but one whose anomie surfaced from the moment that he left the stage, and whose discomfort was only alleviated again with his next appearance behind the keyboard.
Wail: The Life of Bud Powell is an unsentimental biography — not hagiography — of a major jazz artist. It's based as much on an exhaustive look at the public record and press on Powell, as it is on eyewitness accounts of his live performances and on personal opinions of his private life — in addition to subjective assessments of his studio recordings. The book treats all of these accounts as so many pathways to understanding the central paradox of the musically explosive yet emotionally impassive Powell: How could he have played with such rhythmic euphoria (and romantic feeling!) and, yet, seldom if ever have allowed anyone to see the physical and psychic pain that he was often enduring?
While I don't flinch from examining with discernment the era or reporting with candor Powell's antisocial behavior, I've striven in the early chapters to place him as much as possible in the company of other great musicians. I celebrate those whom the emerging artist looked to for inspiration, as any book that chronicles the jazz life must begin with an examination of the world that musicians made for themselves, both in the heat of collective interplay and afterward, when they were between sets or gigs, or on tour. So many ideas that contributed to the emergence of modern jazz, in the Forties, were developed offstage, in conversations that took place wherever two or more musicians met.
As well, where I've based my narration on Powell's private associations, I only reported what his fellow musicians and intimate fans have recalled for me. I don't pretend to have been there for any of it.
I have concluded, though, that the hours spent with musicians were Powell's happiest, and that no one's company gave him more pleasure (as well, of course, as direct inspiration) than did Thelonious Monk's. As they soloed on the same instrument and, in their early years, in the same Harlem nightclubs—and were both advancing the language of music—I see their extraordinary cross-pollination as comparable to that of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
Bud Powell's playing life changed in the early Fifties, though. For all the musical bonhomie that he'd engaged in as a promising musician, he became established as a solo, improvising artist. He had a bassist and drummer in support on almost all occasions, but he was promoted as a star deserving of singular status. He had long devised beautiful solos without regard for his rhythm support; if they couldn't follow him, he went ahead just the same. Hut in the early Fifties he became less concerned with the paths in music that his fellow innovators were forging.
A discomfiting stare, which Powell often put on when in the company of nonmusicians, was increasingly remarked on as his celebrity grew — though he'd never liked to talk, even to musicians, if he deemed them to be less serious about their art than he was. But onstage as well, he showed little interest in indicating, to his sidemen, what tune he was going to play. He sometimes did likewise in the recording studio.
This reluctance was in part due to some desperate need that Powell had always had, to cling to his instrument as the default spokesman for himself and his soul. It came, as well, from the confidence that what he did was the result of the decade of classical training that he'd had in his youth. Musical explanations were, he felt, a waste of time; how could anyone understand what it had taken him so long to master?
Powell had another reason to talk only reluctantly about what he did at the piano and why. The new music that he and others had promulgated since the early Forties was characterized in the press as a wholesale rejection of the musical status quo, swing music. These modernists were, it said, jettisoning the rhythmic and melodic conventions that had made jazz so danceable. So all that they were experimenting with, including unorthodox chord intervals, was given a catchall epithet — bebop. The press initially used the term only sarcastically.
Yet for all of the obstacles that the modernists faced, and those that specifically constrained Powell, he had been lucky to be born in the midst of Harlem's great artistic ferment. He was just old enough to have witnessed, in speakeasies and other informal settings near his home, all of the great masters on his instrument. Drawn to Harlem as the center of such musical activity, and through their constant competing with each other, these performers displayed, for a discriminating and select audience, the entire history of jazz piano in epic solo battles that lasted all night.
Once Powell had absorbed all of this, his will to greatness was driven by the courage not just to better these acknowledged titans technically but to lay out, on the keyboard, his unique, improvised solos — at the brightest tempos — to best even his contemporary rivals, " 'I've got somemin',"' he told another young pianist, " 'they can't get."'
From the Harlem crucible of experimentation, which peaked in the early Forties, Powell and his fellow modernist innovators eventually brought their music to a wider public. As the postwar era began, they started appearing in nightclubs all over New York City and in other major cities in the US, and then they brought their various modern approaches to the major cities of western Europe and, eventually, everywhere else that jazz was reaching.
So, wherever in the world small-group modern jazz is heard today, no matter the kind of nightclub, the pianist is going to play some Bud Powell during his or her set.
With this biography I wasn't satisfied to elaborate an enthusiastic chronicle of Bud Powell's performances, even if they had yielded a natural, narrative arc — from prodigy to early collaboration to recognition to solo stardom to mature celebrity to decline to death.
For one thing, Powell's career doesn't describe a typical arc. He did rise quickly to preeminence among modern-jazz pianists, attaining stardom in the prominent midtown nightclubs within four years of his first professional appearances in Manhattan. And within just two more years, he had recorded as the leader of his own trio with the two companies with which his repertoire legacy is most secure.
No performing artist created as enduring a legacy within a shorter time. In fact, Powell's appearance in a general-reference work, Webster's Biographical Dictionary — wherein are listed kings, generals, inventors, and theologians — is predicated on the fame that he'd achieved, starting from anonymity, in those six years. At the end of that time, he was twenty-six.
But the arc that jazz lives have famously drawn, of precocious talent and early fame followed closely by steep decline or early death, was not Powell's — even if his life has almost always been characterized as tragic. He had a second act. His artistic decline was gradual, with the ratio of great to acceptable performances, a dozen or more years after his 1949-51 peak, high enough to bring out crowds at the clubs where he appeared. This second (and third?) act lasted two and a half times as long as had his first.
What never diminished at all in Powell, however, was the necessity' he felt to hold his audience rapt — making them desperate to hear, even well past his prime, what genius might suddenly erupt from the piano. In all of the accounts that musicians and spectators gave me was the image of a truly uncompromising solo artist, one who played his music with the same intensity whether it was 6 p.m. or a.m., whether what was before him was a parlor upright or a concert grand, and whether he was fifteen or forty years of age.
From the moment Bud Powell entered a room, he saw nothing but the piano, blotting out everyone and everything around him. He was determined to play the instrument, whether he was invited to or not. And once he commandeered the piano stool, he fought, with his inventive solos, never to give it up.
In researching Bud Powell, I first shadowed his goings-to and comings-from the famed nightclubs that he appeared in and the now-legendary studio sessions that he made. I then plotted these movements, creating an itinerary of his professional life. But the more that I learned of his personal life, the more I realized that I had to shadow him in his goings and comings in it, too. For one thing, he existed in a world where alcohol and narcotics were omnipresent. And the consequences of his abuse of them were severe, adversely affecting his opportunities to play.
For almost a decade, from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties, society often saw fit to dispense with Powell, either by involuntarily incarcerating him in hospitals or stripping him of his right to play in clubs. These were the outcomes of court hearings — which Powell chose to ignore, wasn't aware of, or couldn't comprehend. (He did have the eventual good fortune to be represented by an attorney, Maxwell Cohen who, along with Thelonious Monk, had the most salutary impact on Powell's life.)
His time in institutions, as a consequence of the former outcome, amounted to three and a half years in this period. These years haven't been left out of my narrative; in fact, they create a parallel to the one that jazz fans know, of his great records and thrilling live appearances.
These hospitalizations were cruelly reported in the press. They were also spread as gossip, in and around the clubs; some of these rumors, it turned out, had been wholly invented. But once word got around that Powell had just been released from or was about to return to the hospital, spectators eagerly looked for signs of emotional improvement or, more often, decay.
They made amateur pronouncements of his psychological state and incorporated them in their assessments of his musical abilities.
This kind of sordid opining appeared in reviews of Powell's work. Critics felt comfortable guessing what his mental state was. For this treatment, Powell's only true comparators in his time were Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, about whom as well old myths are still believed (and new ones still being created).
Yet, for better or worse, the nightclub was where Powell was found most of the time, where he repaired to no matter his emotional condition or employment status.
And, so, this biography breathes that air most of all. Further, I give life to Powell's fans, those loyal people who came to see him play, as their enthusiasm fueled Powell's fire, no matter how much he seemed the aloof, singular performer. Beyond that, though, I look at the complex interaction that existed between him and specific fans. And, most of all, I illuminate the complicated relationship that Powell had with Francis Paudras, which dynamic has already been the subject of a major biopic.
The other unfavorable outcome for Powell, his being intermittently denied the chance to perform in clubs, was due to the peculiar restrictions that existed in New York City during his heyday. In the appendix, I look at the evolution, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, of police interference with the livelihoods of those who worked in nightclubs — with reference to the city's charter and administrative code.
My appreciation of Bud Powell's art has only grown during the years that I've listened, over and over, to his records, and throughout my investigation of his life. But I admit that I learned only inchoately what private happiness he'd found when he was not involved with music. Intuiting what is in another's mind is, anyway, a dangerous undertaking — even for a biographer. Those few who felt that they knew Powell well wanted me to believe that he was "all music", so they offered little insight into his life offstage. I've documented his time in psychiatric institutions, but I make no effort to confer my own analysis on him.
This part of my narrative concerns more the social and economic currents that ran through the lives of jazz performers in mid-twentieth-century New York City — even those currents that Powell did all that he could to ignore.
Thus, this is a political book. It looks to explain how one of the most exciting art forms coexisted, at one of the world's great centers for entertainment, with the harsh realities that its performers had to endure. And it looks to explain the particular obstacles that Powell faced—ones that made a musician who'd played with him conclude, years later: "Something within him made it work, even when everything else was conspiring against him."
I hope that those who know Powell's music will find the facts of his private life, hitherto unknown, illuminating. But I also hope that some who don't recognize the name Curly Russell, or don't know what took place in the heyday of the nightclubs on Fifty-second Street, will want to learn about those times, and about the life of its most desperately talented, uniquely expressive solo artist.”
While at times, I struggled with Mr. Pullman’s prose [it’s not an easy book to read], I admire the brilliance of his evaluations of what was going on in Bud’s music and the thoroughness of his research.
Given the many socio-cultural negatives that Bud Powell had to deal with to get to his music, it’s a miracle that Bud ever happened at all.
In my opinion, Mr. Pullman’s biography of Bud ranks right up there with Gary Giddins’ bio on Charlie Parker and Alyn Shipton life of Dizzy Gillespie.
Additionally, I found two brief reviews of Mr. Pullman’s book that I thought might also 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 three 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 eyewitnesses. 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.”
Bud Powell: The Tragedy of a Giant: Raymond Horricks
This essay is from These Jazzmen Of Our Times, a compilation that was edited by Raymond Horricks and was published by the London Jazz Book Club in 1960.
Mr. Horricks also authored some of the pieces that appear in the book among them, this one on Bud Powell. Please keep in mind as you read it that it reflects the times in which it was written from the perspective of race relations and the role of drugs and in the life of Jazz musicians from 1945 - 1960. Also, some of the conclusions he draws about the reasons for the psychological issues and motivations in Bud’s life might be questionable since he is not a physician by training.
However, Mr. Horrick’s insights into what make Bud playing great are spot on and not to be missed which is the reason his essay is included here.
“THE DEATHS of Fats Navarro in 1950 and Charlie Parker in 1955 left observers of the jazz scene acutely aware of the personal, human struggles which musicians often have to contend with in the creation of their art. In these instances the two musicians were able to conceive and interpret material wholly inspired—to place on record the moments of brilliance when a man's creation transcends his mortal imperfections. Yet, outside their music, away from the latitude of their instruments, both Navarro and Parker were men unable to adjust their personal make-up to meet the slings and arrows of day-to-day existence. Life, we know, can build a double frustration for the Negro musician with first, the vicious application of the colour bar, and second, the widespread lack of feeling and appreciation for his music. Such frustrations can take away a man's incentive, even to being himself, and if he doesn't make a stand against them he can be destroyed by them.
In the main, however, and typical of his race, the Negro musician has risen above the slings and arrows of his day; even has displayed an ability unparalleled to take and absorb punishment and still carry out his vocation. The ones who fail are the exceptions, and invariably they fail because they are unsuited—temperamentally, that is—to making a stand on their own behalf. Of those who do fail though, it is noticeable that the genius is as prone as the mediocre mind, sometimes more so. His temperament is often more susceptible to human cruelty and indifference. Navarro and Parker were leading figures in their school of jazz, but they lacked the toughness of character to withstand sustained human prejudice. They cared about music, but they didn't care about preserving themselves and making a stand against the world. Consolation (or escape) was sought in an omnipresent danger and heroin became a willing and ghastly aid to their destruction. Relief came only in death.
With the modern pianist Bud Powell, however, the tragedy continues. For Bud, an ill and detached being, lives on and always at the mercy of the situation I have described. A deep gloom of depression has clouded over his life as a man and as a musician. His story is one of repeated collapses by a nervous system not geared to combat an inferiority complex over both colour and music. At times, he would appear to have overcome the various problems and made a full return to health. Invariably though, these times have been followed by a further breakdown. Bud is a man alone: a giant unable to appreciate his own greatness. His life has been chequered by the conflict between a musical inspiration and a sick temperament. It is the life of a musician—the outstanding piano soloist of the modern movement in jazz—going to pieces before the horrified but helpless eyes of his fellows.
As a person Bud has been somewhat removed from the jazz school with which his playing has been identified. He is admired by his fellow musicians, but beyond this his nervous make-up has made it impossible for him to work prolonged engagements with men of his own musical stature—even in convivial surroundings. His playing has been too often inconsistent. So has his personal coherence. His genius, it seems, is alone and out of place in the hardened state that is the jazz musician's life.
The trouble is a sense of inferiority, aggravated by colour prejudice, but basically the result of audiences not responding to him in earlier years when his work was part of the struggle to get modern jazz under way. In fact, Marian McPartland, one of Bud's esteemed admirers, has said that audience appreciation in earlier years might have been his salvation. For Bud has been a natural, and largely unconscious stylist, never quite appreciative of his own powers. Unable to realize that public indifference is the result of ignorance, he has felt that the fault lies with himself, with his own musical thought and interpretation. Accordingly, in an attempt to overcome this mythical fault, he has striven to achieve the impossible in jazz piano playing. Driven to attempt jazz piano improvisation beyond all previous human concepts of coordination between mind and fingers, he has pushed his playing to the limits of physical endurance. His nervous system, stretched to breaking point, has given way again and again under the strain.
Frequently Bud has been the victim of a complete nervous breakdown: he has been committed for psychiatric and hospital treatment for long periods; his musical progress has, on more than one occasion, been pushed right back to its starting point. The nervous disorders have made work and acceptance more difficult, thereby heightening the forces brought to bear on him, and his whole career has represented a state of perpetual anguish. Even when he has been working the pianist has been the object of a morbid curiosity on the part of both the press and the public. It is another instance of human heartlessness that his artistic ability is overlooked while there is a cheap sensationalism to be elicited from his personal difficulties.
Bud Powell's style as a jazz musician naturally contains the nervous tension that is a part of his being. At times this tension will break through the outward glitter of his attack, taking away something of its directional sense. However, although inconsistent, Bud in full form has been the greatest piano soloist of the post-Minton era. He has been the pace-setter for the younger modernists, and, Monk and Erroll Garner aside, the only pianist to fashion a new and mature style for his instrument since the early 1940s.
Although modern jazz has placed an increased emphasis on technique, and many men are obsessed by its demands, and although Bud himself has a phenomenal technique, particularly in his incredibly fast right hand, he has always been one of the most naturally expressive of jazz musicians. And in his case 'expressive' means the richness of the true romantic. For his grandly roving imagination is always paramount and his magnificent technique is servant to it. And, in addition to this vivid romanticism, but partly derived from it, there is a complete lack of restraint in his style. To Bud the many thoughts arising out of the imagination are more important than the presented result, no matter how brilliant he might be able to make it, and he will try to present these thoughts exactly as they are conceived, and immediately they are conceived. (In this he is perhaps to be compared with the James Joyce of Ulysses whose detailing the every passing thought — the 'stream of consciousness' as critics have called it — revolutionized the modern novel. Joyce though did not have the grandiose thoughts that make a romantic; his were everyday thoughts.)
With these two determining features then, a romantic imagination and an urgent need to express exactly its every twist and turn, and with an impressive technical ability to go with them, Bud has set out to fulfil himself as a musician. To fulfil himself in a way he has never found possible as a man. The different moods and tempos of the tunes Bud plays, of the show-songs and jazz originals on which his piano improvisations are based, bring no change to his determination to present the fantasy of the imagination.
With the tunes he plays at a fast tempo he is completely unrelenting. His technical skill would impress an audience to a greater extent if the force of the attack varied, emphasizing occasional peaks, but this is not the method of the gushing, impetuous Bud. Once into his stride there is no variation in the ferocious, glittering attack. The touch is a thing of hardness, savage and percussive in its application. The improvised ideas pour out unchecked in all their splendour, sometimes without obvious sequence, but always as a truthful statement of the passing thought. The solo will be outspoken, almost as an outburst of spontaneous song. In fact, so carried away by the affairs of the imagination will Bud become when he plays, and so excited emotionally, that on a set studio recording he has often been forced to pull up with a jerk at the conclusion of a solo, phrasing a coda quite out of context with the thoughts that have gone before it. He never seeks to build a dramatic climax to his solos. Always the utmost emotion and a full flow of thought are introduced at the outset and maintained throughout. Again, in the slow-tempo ballads, the imagination will be more important than the technical effect; and, although the thoughts may be presented in a semi-lyrical way, perhaps reflectively, they will weave their inventive web through strength. Never is the delivery casual or the expression of thought feeble. Both have to be emphatic to please Bud's strong thoughts and feelings.
So closely is creative ability interwoven with the self-centred romantic approach in Bud that separation is impossible and unnecessary. He has composed and recorded as a piano soloist many beautiful themes: Parisienne Thorofare, Oblivion, Hallucinations (which Miles Davis recorded as Budo), Dusk In Sandi, Strictly Confidential, Tempus Fugit, Celia, Buttercup, So Sorry Please and the painfully atmospheric Glass Enclosure (in part derived from the March in Prokofiev's "Love For Three Oranges"). It is noticeable, however, that these themes lose something of their inherent soul and depth and beauty away from their composer's all expressive piano playing. Max Roach and Clifford Brown used a Parisienne Thorofare arrangement, effecting its sense of atmosphere with traffic noises. Maxwell Cohen, Powell's attorney, tells us that Dizzy Gillespie plans to commission the pianist to write a definitive jazz concerto based on Glass Enclosure [ in Down Beat (March 6, 1957)] . But when Miles Davis recorded Bud's Tempus Fugit in 1953 with three horns and three rhythm the theme reverted to a purely technical study. Under Bud's own decisive hand it had been recorded previously for Norman Granz' Clef company in a fever of imaginative and emotional excitement, its theme yielding a richly romantic flight of improvisation. And other themes, recorded by jazz units without Bud, have missed his vivid, in-person imagination and feeling.
It seems that Bud is the virtuoso musician in jazz, prone to romance, complete and self-centred in his musical concept. Unlike Tatum and Garner, he is not exactly unhappy or uncomfortable when working with groups of musicians instead of as an isolated soloist; but he will superimpose his own personality upon these groups, often clashing with other outstanding personalities and crushing or engulfing the lesser soloists. The absence of restraint in his own playing has obviated the chances of his becoming part of a team. For Bud, like most romantics is not easily disciplined.
In its immediate outward appearance the technical makeup of Bud Powell's piano style is based on the ideas pioneered by Thelonious Monk and Clyde Hart, the piano thinkers of the early 19405. Bud was never devoted to the search for technical progress. In the beginning he was a willing disciple of Thelonious. Observers report that he was able to project certain devices of modern jazz better than his teacher because of his exceptional and natural pianistic skill. But these devices he swallowed only as an aid to expressing his own vivid imagination. The use of double-time, for instance, meant he could flow back and forth across the tempo of a solo with the greater sense of freedom needed by the true romantic. And the interdependence of hands, with the right hand making faster, freer improvisations, and the left hand firmly establishing the chord sequences, meant the same to him. But once this style had matured enough to serve his imagination, all thought of further technical experiment vanished: the outlines of the piano style Bud plays today are the same as they were ten years ago. After Bud had picked out the devices of the men at Minton's and shaped them into a medium, a way of expressing himself, it came about that other pianists also accepted his way and took it unto themselves. In this manner, Bud led the jazz pianists of the 1940s and 1950s. Poorer editions of his melodic inventions for right hand, with their series of single notes played in lightning quick succession and punctuated by sparse, hard left-hand chords, were played by a score of younger pianists in New York alone. And still, in the words of another successful young pianist, Billy Taylor, "The Powell influence is just about the most commonly encountered one in modern jazz piano."
There is another reason why Bud's playing, although technically linked with that of the men at Minton's, cannot be called a complete illustration of their jazz school. It concerns what, for want of a better word, one might call the temperament of his playing. This temperament cannot comply with the softened, relaxed approach of Lester Young and Charlie Christian, with their devious, subtle methods of phrasing. Instead, the technical devices Bud picked up at Minton's are rendered with the surface intensity favoured by pianists of the preceding swing era. He is the passionate, not the cool modernist. His phrasing and his rhythms are too direct to belong entirely to Minton's Playhouse jazz. Although the major admiration of his life has been for Art Tatum, the earliest influence on him was Billy Kyle—Kyle of the swinging attack and flashing right hand. Bud found that the devices of early modern jazz increased his freedom of expression, but drew the line at any dilution of his attack or of the underlying beat he felt.
Perhaps because it contains the best of two different jazz schools, Bud's playing has gained a wide acceptance with musicians. Alone of the 1940s pianists his solo style is revered as only a Hines, a Wilson or a Tatum is revered. Musicians as diverse in approach as Duke Ellington and Lennie Tristano have admired it. They may not always agree with what Bud says, but the power of execution and the power of invention are never questioned. And yet, only rarely has Bud been able to apply the fullness of these powers to the jazz scene.
On just a few occasions Bud has found satisfaction. One night in 1950 he was playing an engagement at New York's Birdland opposite his idol Art Tatum. Previously Art had not valued the young Powell very highly. To his face he'd called him "just a right-handed piano player". Bud had been hurt but determined to make his reply through music. For the first number he played Sometimes I’m Happy — improvising at a lightning tempo entirely with his left hand. Tatum didn't know which way to turn. After the set he whispered to a friend: "Don't tell the kid I said it, but ... I was wrong. He's got one helluva left hand." The friend did tell Bud though. And in this instance the pianist knew his own ability. For just a fleeting moment he felt greatness through his power to impress the one musician he worshipped. The indifference of the public had been belittled by comparison.
Born in New York City in 1924, Earl 'Bud' Powell is the descendant of a long musical line. His studies commenced at the age of six, with the piano, under the guidance of his father, bandleader William Powell; and continued until 1939 when, at the age of fifteen, his interests turned towards jazz. At sixteen he was a professional jazz musician. He gigged around Coney Island, then intuitively was drawn towards Minton's Playhouse and the 52nd Street clubs. At Minton's, having absorbed Thelonious Monk's ideas, he would take over at the piano, illustrating the modernist concept with apparent ease. On the strength of this rapid development as a soloist he worked for three years (until 1945) with Cootie Williams' band. He played on all the trumpeter's 1944-45 recordings for Hit and Majestic. In fact, it was Bud who influenced the band to record Monk's 'Round Midnight before this durable theme was known to many jazz musicians.
This period proved to be the only prolonged work in the pianist's life. On leaving Cootie, he returned to the New York scene, playing with a series of small groups (John Kirby's amongst them), but mainly seeking to establish his status as a solo attraction. Quickly he became absorbed in the hectic life of the younger musicians at this time; and the nervous tension began. That same year he spent ten weeks in Pilgrim State Mental Hospital under observation. Temporarily his mental health was restored: he played solo engagements around New York and recorded with J. J. Johnson and Kenny Clarke (his twenty-four bar solo on Kenny Clarke's Royal Roost for Swing Records reveals an already matured and emotionally exciting piano style), and he also recorded with singer Sarah Vaughan and a string section at this time (for Musicraft).
In January, 1947, Bud recorded eight solos for Roost Records: Somebody Loves Me, Bud's Bubble, I Should Care, Nice Work If you Can Get It, I'll Remember April, Everything Happens To Me, Indiana and Off Minor. Fit and clear thinking, the pianist excelled himself. Bassist Curly Russell and drummer Max Roach gave Bud his best support on record. (It is difficult for a drummer using controlled brushes to accompany Bud at all, so tremendous is the pace he demands. The beat he calls for is not complicated, but it needs to be light and at the same time habitually forcing and sometimes as fast as ninety bars a minute. Only Max Roach and Roy Haynes of the modern drummers have fully catered for his style.)
Then, in November, 1947, he suffered a complete collapse, ultimately spending eleven months at Creedmore Hospital. On release in 1948, he led a trio around New York and began to record for Norman Granz' Mercury/Clef concern. An all-round portrait of the man's creative ability came with the session early in 1949 when Celia, All God's Chillun’, Strictly Confidential and Tempus Fugit were produced. Here the facets are amply displayed: the florid, crashing phrases, which even with a beautiful melody can never change into a lush or a sentimental approach; the absence of light and shade; the all-out emotional stress. On Celia, dedicated to his young daughter, the fine ascending and descending phrases dovetail like the lyrical flow of a song, though they are always attacking. The image of his daughter is one of logical sequences; even the improvised phrases are carefully reminiscent of the real melody. On All God's Chillun', in contrast, the phrases bear little relation to one another, each being complete, glittering and isolated in itself.
In 1949 Bud recorded with trumpeter Fats Navarro for Blue Note. The presence of Navarro acted as a spur. The four tracks — Dance Of The Infidels, Wail, Bouncing With Bud and 52nd Street Theme —evoked the pianist's full fire. Drummer Roy Haynes told later of how, at the session, Navarro and Powell clashed in temperament: they wanted to outplay each other and in so doing raised their music to an inspired level. Later that day Bud cut two further sides —Ornithology and You Go To My Head—with just the rhythm section, but the fire had left him by then. In August, 1950, for Norman Granz, Bud recorded a version of Tea For Two (with Ray Brown on bass, Buddy Rich on drums) which is perhaps the finest individual illustration of his purely technical prowess when playing at the fastest of tempos. A great deal of care was taken with the recording of this solo. Though usually so free an improviser Bud made ten separate 'takes' before proclaiming himself satisfied.
More trouble was to come. In August, 1951, Bud was arrested on a narcotics charge. When lodged at Tombs Prison he developed a persecution complex, shouting hysterically that people were trying to kill him. With the customary lack of respect shown to Negro prisoners, the guards doused him with ammoniated water. Later, friends arranged his transfer to the Pilgrim Hospital, there to begin a long and painful return to health and lucidity. Fortunately, he responded to the electric shock therapy, and after a time he was allowed to play the piano once or twice a week although a nurse was always on hand to stop him whenever he grew agitated. After careful treatment at the hospital he was finally released in February, 1953, a better, though still not fully restored man.
Allan Morrison wrote of Bud's tragic life in the Negro magazine Ebony shortly after the pianist's release from hospital. "Can a Musician Return From the Brink of Insanity?" ran the headline. Morrison described Bud as "a troubled man, an artist seemingly unable to adjust to life, to make his peace in a strife-torn world".
"His inner torment was born of a deep dissatisfaction and a strong inferiority feeling created by his colour," Morrison suggested, "a badge of inferiority that often plunged him into deep depression."
Since 1953 Bud's has been the story of a grim struggle against the total disintegration of the mind and nervous system. Alcohol he set out to give up completely. His wife tried wherever possible to arrange his work into regular patterns and at first recovery seemed secure: Bud worked as a solo at Birdland, to most observers a sane and serious musician. When bassist Charles Mingus recorded the pianist's concert at Massey Hall, Toronto, for the Debut label in May, 1953, the results portrayed Bud again in full possession of his faculties. The fugal Sure Thing on the Debut LP shows with its rich counterpoint Bud's interdependence of hands, a sign that he had his thinking and action under control. Embraceable You bares the man to his soul with its sombre block-chords, heavy and expressive. In the recording studios Bud had brief periods recalling his previous glory. While in hospital he had resented Norman Granz' issue of several of his solos. On emergence he lost a lawsuit against the jazz tycoon but succeeded in breaking his contract.
Subsequent albums for Roost and Blue Note with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor showed that Bud's sense of melody and his inventive power itself had not been obliterated in the fight to get back control of himself, Stella By Starlight in the Roost album is a moving solo; an expressive highlight of the man's recorded career. Later, a reconciliation with Granz took him back into the Clef studios for a recording marathon spread over several days. It was something like a miniature of the Art Tatum library recorded the year before for Clef — though nothing like so consistent in quality. Bud composed several original tunes for these sessions.
These were better times only to be followed by a relapse. In 1954 Bud was booked for a concert and club tour of the West Coast of America. Curtis Counce, his bass player for the tour, was paid an increased salary to act as his companion off-stage. Observers reported, though, that before an audience he was easily upset— even unable to play more than one solo at most of his concerts; he who in earlier years had played in New York clubs to audiences of hypercritical musicians, many of them pianists, and amazed them all. Later that year he returned East and was re-booked at Birdland. There too, unfortunately, his piano playing showed signs of deterioration, and as he played he was often distressed. He quarrelled on the stand one night with the already slowly dying Charlie Parker, so violently and over so trivial a matter that the bass player Charles Mingus made an agonized appeal to the audience not to associate him with their actions.
In 1955, a young Canadian-born pianist, Milton Sealey, passed through New York on his way to Europe—where he was to work and study and eventually make his first recordings. An ardent admirer of Bud Powell, he determined to spend his few evenings in New York listening to the pianist. Of his experiences there Milt spoke with emotion when we met some time later in London. Bud, he recalled, had been scarcely aware of where he was and what he was doing as he sat at the piano. Once embarked on a solo, he could only be persuaded to end it by his bass player repeatedly flashing an aggressive electric light on and off in front of his eyes. The act of making music, it seemed, still registered with him but its boundaries were obscured. And Alun Morgan said the same of Bud when he heard him in Paris in 1957. The pianist was then in Europe for the first time, part of a Birdland package show with Lester Young and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Again he would play only one solo at concerts and on several occasions didn't appear at all. A short, slight man, his face drawn and tormented, he remained apart from his fellow musicians and rarely spoke except in the safety of his wife's company. He moved about uncertainly like a man who is blindfolded and lost. Alun Morgan was backstage before one concert in the large communal dressing room shared by the musicians. He recalled that Bud grew increasingly agitated as the time drew near for him to go on-stage. Nervously, restlessly, the pianist moved about the room, looking into mirror after mirror, adjusting his hair, his tie, his jacket, but speaking to no one. And this when the audience was acquainted with his recordings and ready to fall at his feet. On the few occasions when he did collect himself on-stage, his ideas, emotions and technique, and the solos that flowed from them were brilliant in every way. But, Alun said, such times were rare. Usually he was far away from his audience.
It was after learning of the gruelling schedules in Europe, and the reports on Bud's tragic state there, that Nat Hentoff, then a Down Beat columnist, asked if continuous psychotherapy could not be arranged for the pianist while he was working.
“Bud, in my opinion, so needs continuous psychological therapy to be able to fulfil his still-extraordinary potential as a human being and as a musician," he wrote [Down Beat, February 6, 1957], and went on to complain against sending Bud on a tough concert tour in Europe, immediately followed by another tour back in the States. Nat concluded by asking if Bud, while touring, couldn't be accompanied by a man with training in psychotherapy.
As a result of Hentoff's probe there appeared a lengthy statement about Bud by his attorney, Maxwell Cohen. It detailed the problems of Bud's person and the efforts being made to overcome them.
"Bud is no longer a judicial incompetent, nor for that matter is he a medical incompetent," Cohen reported. "Bud has been under constant treatment and is under treatment by Dr. Phillip Polatin, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He voluntarily visits Dr. Polatin. There is a mutual regard and respect, and there has been a decisive improvement in Bud's health. Financially, although not constantly employed, he is in a better state now than he has been for a number of years.
"What then is the explanation for what happened in Europe, and why must he be accompanied by someone on the Birdland tour?
"The adulation which the troupe received in Europe was excessive, and let us say candidly that all members of the troupe reacted to the hospitality fluidly and flexibly. But the consequences of such hospitality were more prominently displayed by Bud. He cannot drink without a marked physical change in his appearance, walk, and mannerisms. Appearances, in the instance of excessive drinking in others, can be the conventional changes — flushed cheeks, unsteady gait, etc. But, in Bud the reaction is a complete physical change in appearance in the most marked fashion possible.
"Bud is essentially a shy and withdrawn person and finds it difficult to decline invitations extended to him by fans and other musicians to join them for a drink. Very rarely does he initiate his drinking experience.
"The companion escorts Bud with his approval, to actually prevent anyone from accosting him. In a recent appearance, Bud was actually accosted by a young woman who offered him narcotics. He is not a user and had this woman not been stopped, the situation could have been exceedingly serious. Bud's companion has been told that he will be given a cash bonus should he assist in any way in the arrest of any person who tries to give Bud any narcotics."
Cohen concluded: "Bud needs work not only because of economic pressures but because of its rehabilitation effect... the only therapy that Bud actually needs will be a demonstrated attitude that he is a person who has recovered from a tragic illness and can play publicly again, and in fact, should play publicly again." [Down Beat, March 6, 1957]
If this statement confirms that efforts are being made to assist Bud with his problems, then it also confirms that the struggle to gain control of them is a continuous one for him. The trials of life seem determined to destroy him.
To the jazz scene his loss would be irremediable. For, as Leonard Feather notes, "Bud's status as the foremost modern jazz pianist has seldom been disputed. Charged with a fantastic dynamic energy allied with an incredibly fast flow of original ideas, he has produced a series of solos that have made him the idol of almost every young pianist. Technically, he has shown a control and mastery of the keyboard, and tonal individuality in his attack, that no other pianist has quite succeeded in duplicating."[The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, New York, 1955).
In the school of piano players he founded, only Duke Jordan of the close disciples comes anywhere near him by comparison. Hampton Hawes, a young pianist who lives and works mainly in Los Angeles, has driven the broader outlines of Bud's style to a logical conclusion — tempering the hard attack and profuse thinking with an increased sense of order and form. And Horace Silver, one of the great primitives of piano jazz, has deliberately uncovered the roots of Bud's style with his bluesy, down-to-earth approach. However, like Jordan, these two are important players who yet lack the whole inventive ability which has highlighted the genius of their idol. (Bud's own younger brother, Richie Powell, a sensitive pianist and arranger, was killed along with trumpeter Clifford Brown when their car skidded and crashed in 1956.)
Bud Powell has been a great natural jazz force. An emotional, flaming spirit. A romantic stylist whose strength is untamed. A genius misplaced and soiled through contact with life in this twentieth century. If I have been outspoken here I make no apology. It has been a personal thought. If I could will a solution on a jazz musician, I should will it on Bud Powell: his sufferings, and his achievements, have been greater than those of most men.”
Since we are without copyrights permissions for the following two works that contain sizeable chapters on Bud, this visits with Powell via The Jazz Literature concludes with the opening paragraphs from each.
Ira Gitler - Jazz Masters of the 40s [DaCapo Press]
“To have heard Bud Powell at his zenith was one of the most exhilarating experiences in jazz.”
BUD POWELL AND THE PIANISTS
“PERHAPS the most erratic of all the great talents to come to light in the forties was pianist Earl "Bud" Powell. Charlie Parker was hampered by his personal problems, but they usually did not prevent him from functioning at close to his top level. Powell, on the other hand, is a tormented soul whose musical effectiveness was impaired for long periods in the forties and fifties.
In the early sixties, he lived in Paris as an expatriate, playing, and sometimes playing very well, but seldom reaching the musical heights that once were his. After being hospitalized for a year with tuberculosis, he returned to the United States in August, 1964. A year later, he was again seriously ill and in a hospital.
To have heard Bud Powell at his zenith was one of the most exhilarating experiences in jazz. One night at the Three Deuces in the summer of 1947, Charlie Parker's group was on the stand when Fats Navarro and Powell came in and replaced, for one set, the regular trumpeter and pianist, Miles Davis and Duke Jordan. The tune was Thelonious Monk's 52nd Street Theme, played at an intensely fast tempo. Parker and Navarro played well, but what Powell did clearly eclipsed their work that night. For twenty or twenty-five choruses, he hung the audience by its nerve ends, playing music of demonically driven beauty, music of hard, unflinching swing, music of genius.
The man achieving this fantastic expression was one with the music itself: right leg digging into the floor at an odd angle, pants leg up to almost the top of the shin, shoulders hunched, upper lip tight against his teeth, mouth emitting an accompanying guttural song to what the steel fingers were playing, vein in temple throbbing violently as perspiration popped out all over his scalp and ran down his face and neck.
This was the young, tigerish Powell who had already influenced countless pianists, as well as many players on other instruments. It was also the Powell whose trips to mental institutions numbered five between 1945 and 1955.”
Kenny Mathieson - Giant Steps: bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz, 1945-65 [Payback Press]
Earl 'Bud' Powell was the greatest of the pure bebop pianists. His flowing, linear style, underpinned by a spare left-hand comping which had its roots in the solidity of stride piano, but translated into the angular asymmetric accents of bebop, established the dominant approach of the period, and his influence can be felt in almost all pianists active in that idiom, with the exception of the man who was very much Powell's early mentor, Thelonious Monk. While he was a brilliant musician, however, Powell was a deeply unstable character who spent much of his adult life either incarcerated in institutions or on heavy medication, which proved almost as damaging as his illness. …
Like Charlie Parker, Powell had made his timeless contribution to the new music at the height of the bebop era, when both his creative spirit and his physical capacity to articulate it were in their fullest flowering, and even the best of his subsequent work never quite recaptured the glory of that moment. Nonetheless, he is the quintessential bebop pianist and one of the unquestionable giants of jazz piano, and no amount of bad nights at the office can take that distinction away from him. And when he is on his game, even late in his career, bouncin' with Bud remains one of jazz's most inspirational pleasures.”