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Bud Powell | 31 July 1966

BudPowellBud 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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Nice piece. I think the later Bluenotes, if not with the energy etc of his prime, do pay dividends. As does the Monk album. And moving and well worth watching (its on You tube) is…

    “Stop for Bud” (1963) is an experimental portrait of the American jazz pianist Bud Powell. The film was shot by a sometimes moving camera in contrast-poor black and white, with a slightly dreamy tone as the celebrated pianist proceeded through Copenhagen locations such as Kongens Have (a park), a dockside and a rubbish dump….The film also includes a concert scene from the Montmartre jazz club in which Powell’s face and fingers are studied from a series of beautiful, dark angles as he plays…”

    July 30, 2016
  2. Small point: the Massey Hall concert was held in 1953.

    July 30, 2016
  3. What a delight to find the Antibes performance of “I’ll Remember April” recalled here. There’s so much to like about this number – Powell’s extended solo, Dolphy turning the sequence inside out, then sax exchanges alternating 4, 2 and ultimately 1 bar each – breathtaking stuff. We welcomed Toshiko Akiyoshi to London for her first club engagement in the city, at the astonishing age of 86. She spoke of Powell as her mentor and performed her tribute ‘Remembering Bud’ as well as Powell’s own ‘Tempus Fugit’ – another fitting tribute.

    July 30, 2016
  4. Michael #

    Enjoyed the piece, Richard. Is there a particular album you’d recommend, for someone who hasn’t got any Powell stuff, that would be a definite first purchase?

    August 1, 2016
    • ‘Tempus Fugue-it’, a Proper 4-CD set for about £18, has the important early bop-era stuff, including the Roost trio date and sessions with Parker. ‘Inner Fire’ (a trio session live in 1953 with Mingus and Roy Haynes) is very good. ‘A Portrait of Thelonious’ — trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke — is wonderful. The Massey Hall concert is essential, but more for Parker. The Parker-Navarro-Powell Birdland live airshots are also essential, for all of them. You can get all Bud’s 1950s Blue Notes and Verves in those cheap multi-disc collections — but my view of those things is that if you don’t already know the music, seven or eight discs are too much to take in properly. If you just want to try one CD, with excellent sound quality (unlike much of the early stuff), maybe ‘A Portrait of Thelonious’ would be a good choice. Hope that helps.

      August 1, 2016
  5. Michael #

    Thanks Richard, I’ll investigate those and take my pick. Appreciated.

    August 1, 2016
  6. This is a lovely memory of one of my true jazz heroes. When I was a pupil in Mackie Academy, Stonehaven in the 60s, our English teacher Keith Taylor, gave me a copy of a 10 inch Vocation LP of Bud – it changed my life as this was piano playing on a different planet.
    At that time, I think I was the only Scotsman who subscribed to Downbeat – it cost me 5 shillings every month from Waldies papershop Stonehaven.
    I never dreamt that in later life I would meet, and work with musicians of his generation like Annie Ross.
    I remember reading about Bud’s funeral in one of these copies of Downbeat.
    As a pianist, I am still amazed at the sheer velocity and swing of his playing.

    August 3, 2016
  7. mick gold #

    Wasn’t Francis Paudras’ book Dance of the Infidels a major inspirations behind Tavernier’s Round Midnight? One of the few films that captured the texture and the anguish of jazz modernists.

    August 3, 2016
  8. Brian Priestley #

    Nice piece, Richard, and thank you for remembering a jazz great. I’m sure you would enjoy reading Peter Pullman’s exhaustive biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell (available through which adds a lot of detail to some of the points you touch on.

    August 3, 2016
  9. Colin Harper #

    I’ve yet to hear Bud myself, but I’m reading Peter King’s autobiography ‘Flying High’ at the moment and there’s several pages, in Chapter 3, of richly evocative reminiscence about hanging out with and playing with Bud in London and Paris in the early 60s. Indeed, Peter’s writing is very insightful generally – he manages to describe his process, as a musician, of listening to other players and trying to find an original sound and ideas in his formative period in a way that really gets it across to the layman. His writing feels honest, conversational and unpretentious. And his memory’s good too! Not one of those ‘and then I did this, and then I met so and so, and then…’ type books with nothing much to say (like Glyn Johns’ memoir, for instance).

    August 6, 2016
  10. Thank you, Richard.

    August 7, 2016
  11. Round Midnight’s Dexter Gordon character was a composite of Bud Powell and Lester Young. Bud’s technical virtuosity and harmonic genius are evident and his warmth — the humanity that comes through in his playing – is what makes him one of the greatest musicians of all time.

    August 10, 2016
  12. Jeff Monkash MD #

    I concur with the above remarks.
    To me, who has listened to and collected jazz for over 50 years, no one can match Bud Powell!
    He was a true genius pushed by his own deep inner need to play with ferocity and tempered with such amazing tenderness. His compositions, his conception are so profound that they like Mozart or Bach are unworldly in their true implications.
    Bud LIVES! and will always inspire!
    Despite the many emotional and mental challenges he faced throughout his tragically foreshortened life on this earth, his gifts to us are truly immeasurable!
    I remain inspired every time I hear him play!
    Jeff Monkash

    September 5, 2016

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