Bud Powell never made being a genius look easy. Fifty years ago tomorrow — on July 31, 1966 — his death at the age of 41 put an end to an existence that seems to have been defined by two factors: first, his extraordinary talent; second, an incident that took place when he was not even 21, and which began the process of stifling his brilliance.
It happened in 1945, after a gig in Philadelphia with the band of the trumpeter Cootie Williams. Powell had already been marked out for greatness. While still in his teens, and thus technically underage, he had become a regular at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse, the crucibles of bebop, and had been befriended by Thelonious Monk. But that night in Philadelphia it seems that he was beaten by police while wandering the streets in an intoxicated condition after the gig, and was thrown into the cells. After his release, persistent headaches — seemingly induced by the beating — led him to treatment first in Bellevue hospital and then in a psychiatric institution.
Alcohol was a companion to him, but not a friend. His behaviour could be erratic and aggressive and in 1947, after a fight in a club, he was sent back to Bellevue and thence to Creedmore State Hospital in Queens, where he was kept for 11 months. From late 1951 to early 1953 he was in a mental hospital again, this time committed after being found in possession of marijuana. At some time or other he is believed to have been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, which had come into use in 1938, and whose dangerous side-effects were little understood.
Some of those who heard him in his youth claimed that he was never the same player after 1945, which makes us shake our heads in disbelief when we listen to the trio recordings he made (with Curley Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums) for the Roost label in 1947, two years after that first incarceration. Through the terrible sound quality, the dazzling quality of his inventiveness on a track like “Indiana” still shines through.
Despite his misfortunes, there would be further great recordings, both live and in the studio: with Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro at Birdland in 1950, with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roach and Charles Mingus at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, and his own recordings for Alfred Lion and Norman Granz in the early 1950s, most notably the piece “Glass Enclosure”, whose title and disturbing melodic angles reflect his experiences in hospital and other institutions. He was, in fact, a brilliant composer — check out the profound lyricism of the 1958 piece “Time Waits” — as well as the only improviser of the post-war generation who could match Parker’s standards of inexhaustible creativity.
In 1959 he relocated to Paris, where he found supportive friends such as Nicole Barclay, the wife of the record label boss Eddie Barclay, and Francis Paudras, a young jazz-loving commercial artist who later wrote a touching memoir of their association, its title — Dance of the Infidels — borrowed from one of the pianist’s best known compositions. Powell became a regular at Left Bank clubs such as the Cafe Saint-Germain and the Blue Note, where he played with kindred spirits like the drummer Kenny Clarke, a fellow émigré, and the gifted French tenorist Barney Wilen, as well as with old friends visiting from New York. In France, his colleagues, acquaintances and fans knew that to offer him a drink would not be doing him a favour. Here’s a version of Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll” from 1963 which I love for the subtle way he infiltrates ambiguous voicing into such a well known tune.
One of my favourite pieces of Powelliana is a film of his guest appearance with Mingus’s quintet at the Antibes jazz festival in 1960. He played only one tune with them, but this long version of “I’ll Remember April” (which he had also recorded on that 1947 Roost trio session) contains six choruses of piano that repay close attention. The diamond-cutter articulation and lightning speed are gone, and there are occasional minor missteps, but the constant stream of lovely ideas and the relaxed intensity of the performance make it something to be treasured, even before the horns — Ted Curson (trumpet), Eric Dolphy (alto) and Booker Ervin (tenor) — have their say. And note the notably respectful way Mingus, an old sparring partner, and Dannie Richmond concentrate on providing solid support while staying out of his way.
In 1964, with his health precarious, Powell returned to New York, accompanied by Paudras, for a comeback engagement at Birdland. Although he was welcomed, his playing had lost its edge and its lustre. Paudras returned to Paris but Powell decided to stay on, dying two years later in a Brooklyn hospital of a combination of tuberculosis (contracted during his final year in Paris), alcoholism and malnutrition. A vast crowd filled the streets outside his funeral in Harlem, where he had been born and where he had first been acclaimed as a prodigy.
* The photograph of Bud Powell was taken in New York in 1964 by Robert James Campbell and is taken from Rebirth of the Cool, a book of Campbell’s work edited by Jessica Ferber and published by powerHouse Books.