Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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POWELL, Bud

(b Earl Rudolph Powell, 27 September 1924, NYC; d there 31 July 1966) Pianist. Bud Powell was the most important pianist in bop, and one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz. He himself had been influenced by Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Nat Cole, but also admired Billy Kyle. Powell witnessed and became part of the birth of modern jazz in NYC; not only were his harmony and rhythm central to bop, but his sparkling and percussive right hand, like Parker's playing, encouraged more imitators than geniuses: this may have been at the expense of the left hand in modern jazz piano, but that wasn't Powell's fault: as with all the greatest artists, many of his imitators couldn't do what he did. He took the NYC stride piano style into a new realm, playing often dissonant chordal commentary with his left hand while endless, fluently melodic improvisations streamed from his right. Yet there is a story that, teased by Tatum complaining that he had no left hand, he played an entire blistering set using only the left. His tunes 'Bouncing With Bud', 'Dance Of The Infidels', 'The Glass Enclosure' and a few others bespoke great skill as a composer which remained undeveloped. He was most at home in a trio setting, improvising on standards.

Encouraged by Thelonious Monk, Powell recorded with Cootie Williams's band and sextet '43-4. Williams said that Powell got in some kind of trouble after a gig in Philadelphia in 1945 and was beaten so badly by law enforcement officers (Williams said the FBI) that he had to go to Bellevue (quoted in Stanley Dance's The World Of Duke Ellington). Powell also used drugs and alcohol; Monk and Charlie Parker may have counselled acting 'crazy' in self-defence, the put-on being an essential part of the bop scene and a way of dealing with racism; in any case nervous paranoia set in and dogged Powell for the rest of his life. His whole life was music, and he could hear the sounds even when there was no instrument; he spent '48 and other periods in hospital, where he was given electroshock therapy to make him 'normal'. In a famous incident at a reunion gig early '55 Powell had to be helped from the stand, incapable; Parker stood at the microphone intoning, calling: 'Bud Powell, Bud Powell.' Charles Mingus announced, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please don't associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people.' (A week later Parker was dead.) Powell lived in Paris '59--64, was hospitalized for suspected TB '62-3, went to NYC for a gig but did not return to Paris as planned.

He recorded as a leader on Roost '47 with Max Roach, Curley Russell on bass (b 19 March 1917, Trinidad; d 3 July 1986; played with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, etc); '53 with George Duvivier and Art Taylor. A quintet date on Blue Note '49 included Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Tommy Potter on bass; further Blue Note dates with trios '51, '53, '57 (Curtis Fuller's trombone on some tracks) and '58, compiled in limited edition five-LP set The Complete Bud Powell Blue Note Recordings on Mosaic '86, an important limited edition soon out of print. The '49-53 tracks were on two CDs as The Amazing Bud Powell on Blue Note. The Complete Bud Powell On Verve was a five-CD set of Clef, Norgran and Verve originals. The famous Massey Hall concert May '53 included a Powell trio set with Roach and Mingus as well as a quintet with Gillespie and Parker, first on Roach and Mingus's Debut label, now on separate Fantasy CDs (or in the ten-CD Complete Debut Recordings). Trio tracks made '57-8 for Epic with George Duvivier and Art Taylor were finally issued '97 on Koch Jazz as Bud Plays Bird.

In Paris Powell played in a trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke; they backed Dexter Gordon on Our Man In Paris '63, made trio LP Bud In Paris '59-60 on Xanadu (two tracks are duets with Powell and Johnny Griffin), others on Black Lion/Freedom and ESP/Fontana, also A Portrait Of Thelonious on CBS labels, all '61. Bud Powell In Concert '60 on Polydor had Oscar Pettiford instead of Michelot, Coleman Hawkins on two tracks; Michelot returned for Memorial Oscar Pettiford later the same year on Vogue, a month after Oscar's death.

With other rhythm sections, five volumes of Live At The Golden Circle on Steeplechase were made in Copenhagen '62, unreleased for almost 20 years; Fontana LPs included tapes made at home by Powell's friend Francis Paudras (the character played by Gordon in film Round Midnight '86 is based on Powell; another character is based on Paudras). There are air checks and bootlegs on Italian and other labels; his last records were made in NYC on Roulette and ESP. His playing was sometimes handicapped by his personal problems and the mid-'50s seems to have been one of his worst periods; two RCA trio albums '56-7 were among the weaker Powell albums: the production lacked imagination and he was sometimes heavily tranquillized. But his accomplishment was long since complete.

Peter Pullman's excellent biography, Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, was published online in 2012. It can be purchased as a download here. Pullman had written and compiled the booklet (and conducted the interviews) for The Complete Bud Powell On Verve (1994), and carried on from there. Powell's brother Richie was also a fine pianist; see Clifford Brown's entry.