Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell (September 27, 1924 – July 31, 1966), born in New York City, was one of the most influential pianists in the history of jazz. Along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie he was instrumental in the development of bebop, and his virtuosity as a pianist led many to call him “the Charlie Parker of the piano.”
Powell’s grandfather was a flamenco guitarist, and his father was a stride pianist. The family lived in New York City. His older brother William played the trumpet, and by the age of fifteen Powell was playing in his brother’s band. Powell had learned classical piano from an early age, but by the age of eight was interested in jazz, playing his own transcriptions of Art Tatum and stride pianists Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Younger brother Richie was also an accomplished pianist, as was school friend Elmo Hope. Thelonious Monk was an important early teacher and mentor, and a close friend throughout Powell’s life, dedicating the composition “In Walked Bud” to Powell. In the early forties Powell played in a number of bands, including that of Cootie Williams, and in 1944 his first recording date was with Williams’ band. This session included the first ever recording of a tune by Monk, “‘Round Midnight.” Monk also introduced Powell to the circle of bebop musicians starting to form at Minton’s Playhouse, and other early recordings included sessions with Frank Socolow, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Fats Navarro and Kenny Clarke. In the early years of bebop, Powell and Monk, as the first great modern jazz pianists, towered over their contemporaries, Al Haig, Ralph Burns, Dodo Marmarosa, and Walter Bishop, Jr.
Powell soon became renowned for his ability to play accurately at fast tempos, inspired bebop soloing, and his comprehension of the ideas that Charlie Parker had suddenly unearthed from the piece Cherokee and other song-forms. Powell’s solos, conceived in emulation of and rivalry with Parker, are instantly recognizable and descriptive, with frequent arpeggiations punctuated by chromaticism. They are nonetheless progressive-sounding, reaching for the heights of the harmonic series, beyond the confines of classical harmony to the extent possible within the piano keyboard. Powell’s lines form series of brief, carefully phrased statements. They move confidently whether fully resolved or not, through moments of eloquence and near awkwardness. Powell adhered to a simplified left-hand “comping” recalling stride and pianist Teddy Wilson. The comping often consisted of single bass notes outlining the root and fifth. He also used a tenth, which he was able to reach easily due to his very large hands, with the minor seventh included.
From 1949, in Jazz News, we hear “Bud’s left hand gives his playing a fullness and sureness that no other be-bop pianist has, Bud is also sufficiently independent from the tempo to be able to improvise fast, complicated phrases in the manner of Charlie Parker, phrases that always land on their feet with amazing precision. Bud Powell has enormous inspiration, in all his solos we recognize the sound of a great musician and the true class of someone who has something to say and says it well.”
Influences on Bebop and Jazz
Powell freed the right hand for continuous linear exploration, and facilitated in the left a statement of the harmonies typical of bebop. When Art Tatum questioned Powell’s neglect of the left hand, the younger player responded audaciously in a subsequent tune by soloing with his left hand. Powell’s favoring the treble was not to avoid integrating the hands, which is essential to both a solo and accompanying technique. With his polar division of the keyboard, however, Powell was most responsible for permanently establishing the piano on an equal improvisatory footing with the horns and bass. These formed the basic small ensembles that have dominated jazz since the swing era. Before Powell, Art Tatum and Earl Hines had also somewhat explored independent homophony closely resembling later piano playing. On his music, during an interview, Bud said, “I wish it had been given a name more in keeping with it’s seriousness of purpose.” In another he added, that he, by chance, carried the same label as Charlie Parker, the label, ‘bop’…” Jay McShann said in an interview, “No, Bird has never played bebop. Bebop is only a term that they stuck onto his music. Bird was playing the blues. All of his music is based on the blues.” Miles Davis announced, “Bebop? That’s a word invented by white people.” Bud Powell brought a sensitivity and a beauty to such an intricate style. From Francis Paudras on seeing Powell in Paris, “He seemed to me a sort of alchemist, blending matchless craftsmanship with unbounded inspiration and topping it off with impeccable taste. Never had any artist or musician given me the impression of such concentration, such a headlong rush toward perfection. Each evening was an awed communion, like a religious experience.”
Powell’s leadership and personal problems
Powell’s first session as a leader was in a trio with Curly Russell and Max Roach, recorded in 1947 but not released until two years later, by Roost. He also recorded a session with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tommy Potter and Roach during this year. In 1945, at age twenty and already thought of by his peers as a great pianist, in an act of selfless bravado Powell took a beating from the police who were harassing his best friend and mentor Thelonious Monk. After suffering headaches and pain for a long period and unable to get relief, he was, in November 1947, admitted to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, where he stayed for over a year, receiving electroconvulsive therapy which caused severe memory loss. The young Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins became friendly with Powell on his release from the hospital, and Powell recommended McLean to Miles Davis. Powell suffered from mental illness throughout his life, possibly triggered by the beating from the police which certainly exacerbated his problems. He was also an alcoholic, and even small quantities of alcohol had a profound effect on his character, normally quiet and reserved, making him aggressive. Powell’s continued rivalry with Charlie Parker, essential to the production of brilliant music, was also the subject of disruptive feuding and bitterness on the band-stand, as a result of Powell’s troubled mental and physical condition.
However, in Jazz News (October 1949) Nicole Barclay claimed that, “Charlie Parker says Bud is a genius. Bud says the same thing about Parker and we think they’re both right.”
From Bill Evans, “He was so expressive, such emotion flowed out of him! 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.”
“He was in a class by himself.”
It is generally agreed that his best recordings are those made prior to 1954, both for Blue Note Records and for Norman Granz (at Mercury Records, Norgran Records, Clef Records and later on Verve Records). The first Blue Note session, in August 1949, features Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Powell, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, and the compositions Bouncing with Bud and Dance of the Infidels. The second Blue Note session was a trio with Russell and Roach, and includes Parisian Thoroughfare and Un Poco Loco, the latter selected by literary critic Harold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the greatest works of twentieth-century American art. Sessions for Granz (more than a dozen) were all solo or trios, with a variety of bassists and drummers including Russell, Roach, Buddy Rich, Ray Brown, Percy Heath, George Duvivier, Art Taylor, Lloyd Trotman, Osie Johnson, Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke.
Powell recorded for both Blue Note and Verve throughout the fifties, interrupted by another long stay in a mental hospital from late 1951 to early 1953, following arrest for possession of marijuana. He was released into the guardianship of Oscar Goodstein, the owner of the Birdland nightclub. A 1953 trio session for Blue Note (with Duvivier and Taylor) included Powell’s composition Glass Enclosure, inspired by his near-imprisonment in Goodstein’s apartment. His playing after his release from hospital began to be seriously affected by Largactil, taken for the treatment of schizophrenia, and by the late fifties his talent was clearly in decline. In 1956 his brother Richie was killed in a car crash alongside Clifford Brown. This was a double blow for him. Three albums for Blue Note in the late fifties showcased Powell’s ability as a composer, but his playing was nowhere near the standard set by his earlier recordings for the label. After several further spells in hospital, Powell moved to Paris in 1959, in the company of Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards, a childhood friend.
In Paris, Powell worked in a trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. Buttercup was keeping control of his finances and also over-dosing him with Largactil, but he continued to perform and record—the 1960 live recording of the Essen jazz festival performance (with Clarke, Oscar Pettiford and on some numbers Coleman Hawkins) is particularly notable. In December 1961 he recorded two albums for Columbia Records under the aegis of Cannonball Adderley—A Portrait of Thelonious (with Michelot and Clarke), and A Tribute to Cannonball (with the addition of Don Byas and Idrees Sulieman—despite the title, Adderley only plays on one alternate take). The first album was released shortly after Powell’s death (with overdubbed audience noise), and the second in the late 1970s. Eventually Powell was befriended by Francis Paudras, a commercial artist and amateur pianist, and Powell moved into Paudras’s home in 1962. There was a brief return to Blue Note in 1963, when Dexter Gordon recorded Our Man in Paris for the label—Powell was a last-minute substitution for Kenny Drew, and the album of standards showed him to still be capable of playing well. In 1963 Powell contracted tuberculosis, and the following year he returned to New York with Paudras. The original agreement had been for the two men to go back to Paris, but Paudras returned alone, and Powell died hospitalized in 1966 after months of increasingly erratic behavior and self-neglect.
In 1986 Paudras wrote a book about his friendship with Powell, translated into English in 1997 as Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell (the title is derived from one of Bud’s compositions).
In it he says, “If this great exponent of Black American culture inspired me, a white European, 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.”
The book was the basis for Round Midnight, a fine film inspired by the lives of Bud Powell and Lester Young, in which Dexter Gordon played the lead role of an expatriate jazzman in Paris.