Bud Powell - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            Pianist and composer Bud Powell was one of the two most influential players of the bop generation, rivaled only by his close friend and early mentor, Thelonious Monk. His innovative style utterly transformed the direction of jazz piano and remains to this day the foundation of modern piano improvisation. The work of pianists as varied as Toshiko Akiyoshi, Tommy Flanagan, Cecil Taylor, Alice Coltrane and McCoy Tyner would be unimaginably different without Powell’s music. Confronting more than his share of personal and health problems, his life story stands as testimony to one man’s determination to remain creative in spite of formidable obstacles.


            As a pianist, Powell was a masterful technician, strongly influenced by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. Working out the basics of the new music with men like saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach; Powell developed a style that included rapid-fire melodies played by the right hand, while the left provided punctuation with irregularly spaced, dissonant chords. At its best, his playing was characterized by a flow of rapid, inventive and unpredictable melody performed with intense precision. Even when his virtuosity failed him in his later years, Powell maintained his basic approach, always ready to devise new melodic idea and harmonies.


            Earl Randolph “Bud” Powell was born into a musical family in New York City on September 27, 1924. His father, William Powell, was a stride pianist. Two of Bud’s siblings were also musicians. His brother, William, was a trumpeter and violinist; his younger brother, Richie Powell, became a pianist and was a member of the famed Max Roach quintet with Clifford Brown. Bud began studying piano at the age of six and went on to receive seven years of formal training. Bach and Mozart were early favorites. By his early teens, he was intensely studying the records of jazz pianists like Tatum and Billy Kyle, who played in the John Kirby band.


            At the age of fifteen, Powell dropped out of high school to become a free-lance musician. Among his earliest gigs were playing burlesque houses in Coney Island with a band led by his older brother. He soon worked his way up to such Harlem venues as Canada Lee's Chicken Coop, and was later briefly a member of trumpeter Valaida Snow’s Sunset Royals. Powell’s musical curiosity led him to Minton’s Playhouse, where the new sounds of bebop were being established on the bandstand. Powell soon got to know and become fast friends with Thelonious Monk, seven years older and then working as house pianist at Minton’s. As jazz writer Mark Gardner puts it, the innovative music that Powell heard being played by the likes of Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker “quickened Bud’s appreciation for the need for an entirely new pianistic conception that would be in harmony with this totally different jazz style which demanded greater technical expertise and intellectual involvement.” To develop this new style, Powell embarked on a relentless practice regimen, seeking to translate the improvisational genius of Parker to the keyboard, while adding harmonic and rhythmic ideas entirely of his own.


            In 1943, Powell took a job in the Cootie Williams band. Williams, the once and future star trumpeter in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was a firm believer in Powell’s qualities. Because Powell was still under age, Williams became his legal guardian. Powell’s piano was prominent on a series of recordings that the Williams group made for the Hit label in 1944, where his daring accompaniments stood out in a largely mainstream context. It was almost certainly Powell’s influence that induced Wiliams to make the first recording of Monk’s classic “‘Round Midnight” in August 1944.


            On January 21, 1945, while in Philadelphia on a tour with the Williams orchestra, Powell was struck in head by a police officer in a scuffle following a raid.. Cootie Williams later told author Stanley Dance that Powell’s mother had to hire a car to get him back to New York. “His head was so damaged he ended up in Bellevue; his sickness started right there,” Williams said. Powell spent most of the rest of the year recovering, a process that included such “treatments” as electroconvulsive shock therapy and being doused with ammoniated water. Powell went on to endure a lifetime of headaches, disorientation, seizures and erratic behavior that led to many more institutional confinements over the years. With probable brain damage from his beating and coerced into undergoing questionable treatments in an attempt to achieve “normalcy,” Powell self-medicated with drugs and drink. Unfortunately but predictably, this only exacerbated his mental instability. Even so, Gardner makes note of Powell’s astonishing “resilience to persistent setbacks in mind and body.”


            After regaining his health sufficiently to allow him to perform, Powell decided to pursue small group work., including in small groups led by Gillespie and John Kirby. In 1946, he recorded with a who’s who of early bop, making significant contributions to classic sides by Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt and Kenny Clarke. The following year, Powell played his first date as a bandleader. He recorded eight songs for Roost with a trio of Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. His only other record date that year was a session with Charlie Parker in May for Savoy that yielded “Donna Lee” and “Chasin’ the Bird.” Powell became more and more unstable in late 1947 and was often awkward and uncommunicative. Before the year was out, he was once again institutionalized, this time for nearly eighteen months. One of his first appearances after his release was at the Royal Roost in December, 1948, with an all-star group including Johnson, Roach and Lee Konitz.


            In 1949, Powell was at the height of his musical powers. He began concurrent relationships with Blue Note Records and with Norman Granz’s Clef and Norgran Records (later to become Verve). The first Clef sessions, in a trio setting with Roach and bassist Ray Brown, took place in January and February. In August, Powell went into the studio for Blue Note with trumpeter Fats Navarro, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (in the first year of his career), Tommy Potter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. Every song turned into a classic, including Powell’s original compositions, “Bouncing with Bud,” “Wail” and “Dance of the Infidels,” as well as his take on Monk’s “52nd Street Theme.” Powell, Potter and Haynes completed the sessions with trio renditions of “You Go to My Head” and Parker’s “Ornithology.” In December, Powell recorded the first of two highly acclaimed sessions as a sideman with Sonny Stitt for Prestige, waxing “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” and “Sonny Side.” The second Prestige date, in January 1950, included “Strike up the Band” and “I Want to Be Happy.” It was followed by more trio dates for Clef in February and June, when he also appeared with Charlie Parker at Birdland. Powell’s first solo piano session was made for Verve in February 1951 and featured his compositions “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Hallucinations” (later known as “Budo”). He recorded his second Blue Note session on May 1, 1951, once again with the trio of Roach and Russell. Although the session was delayed by Powell’s unexplained absence, when he did arrive he was very anxious to get to work, rushing into the studio to play three takes of his “Un Poco Loco,” later described by Leonard Feather as “certainly one of Bud’s greatest compositions.”


            From late 1951 until early 1953, Powell was once again institutionalized at Bellevue after a dubious arrest for marijuana possession. Following his release in February of 1953, Powell was declared legally incompetent by the State of New York. He was released into the care of Oscar Goodstein, owner of Birdland, who agreed to be his guardian. Powell now had steady work and there are a number of airchecks from Birdland in February and March, 1953. With drummer Haynes and bassist Charles Mingus, Powell played Washington, DC in April. He reunited with Parker, Gillespie and Roach for the famous Massey Hall concert in Toronto on May 15, a show that opened with a set by the Powell trio. Originally recorded for Mingus and Roach’s Debut Records, the concert was reissued by Fantasy as two volumes of Jazz at Massey Hall. In August, Powell, with bassist George Duvivier and drummer Art Taylor, was back in the studio for Blue Note. The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 2 included a new composition, “Glass Enclosure,” an unusual piece that Powell said represented the New York apartment where he was confined.


            Although he managed to record steadily for Verve and appeared regularly at Birdland, Powell continued to be a fragile and unpredictable individual. Drummer Elvin Jones, who played in a Powell trio in the mid-fifties, said that he’d "always had the impression that Bud had been hurt so much. He was like a delicate piece of china.” Goodstein’s guardianship ended in 1956, which enabled Powell to travel to Europe as part of the Birdland 1956 tour. Powell’s final Blue Note albums were Bud! The Amazing Bud Powell (1957), Time Waits (1958) and The Scene Changes (1958). He also recorded for Roulette and RCA before he left for Europe early in 1959. At the Blue Note in Paris, Powell performed regularly with a trio of expatriate drummer Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot. Clarke's biographer, Mike Hennesey, wrote, "…the golden age of jazz in Paris and the presence of Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell at the Blue Note... was unquestionably a key factor in the high level of jazz activity in the French capital." Powell also made appearances with traveling American jazzmen, joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1959 in Paris and performing as a guest star with the Charles Mingus quintet at the 1960 Antibes Jazz Festival.


            Powell’s personal problems did not cease in Paris. Jackie McLean has told of how "all Paris knows Bud - when I say Paris, I mean all the jazz people and artists, and they know it’s not a good idea to give Bud anything to drink... One glass of brandy can completely flip him around." A new source of trouble for Powell was his girlfriend Altevia "Buttercup" Edwards, who kept a close watch on his finances while allegedly overdosing him with the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine. In 1962, graphic artist Francis Paudras, a fan who had struck up a friendship with Powell, learned that Powell had been confined to a Parisian psychiatric ward. Paudras secured his release and helped him, putting him up for a time. Paudras also recorded Powell in various informal settings, which he issued along with historical material on his Mythic Sounds label.


            In 1963, Powell was diagnosed with tuberculosis. That October, Goodstein organized a benefit concert at Birdland to help with his medical expenses. Powell returned to New York in August 1964, accompanied by Paudras, who was still trying to supervise Powell’s habits and finances. The pianist had other ideas, however. After being warmly received at his first Birdland engagement, he reverted to his old routines. He announced that he would return to Paris with Paudras, then changed his mind at the last minute and stayed in New York. He moved to Brooklyn and continued to perform when possible, although his health continued to deteriorate. Bud Powell died in a New York hospital on July 31, 1966, felled by malnutrition, alcoholism and tuberculosis. An estimated 5,000 people lined the streets of Harlem to bid farewell to Powell. His funeral procession was led by the Jazzmobile, and pianist Barry Harris and trumpeter Lee Morgan played Monk's "Round Midnight," "Dance of the Infidels" and "Bud's Bubble."


            In 1986, Paudras wrote a book about his deep friendship with Powell, translated into English as Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell. His memoir became the basis for Bertrand Tavernier’s acclaimed 1986 film Round Midnight, which starred Dexter Gordon as an expatriate jazzman in Paris. Both Verve and Blue Note celebrated, in 1994, the seventieth anniversary of Powell’s birth, releasing box sets devoted to his collected works.


            Musicians uniformly sing Powell’s praises. Pianist Herbie Hancock says that "He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano; every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him." Bill Evans, who counted Powell as his greatest influence, called him “the most immense talent.” Saxophonists Johnny Griffin (“Bud was the truth, just like Bird.”) and Sonny Rollins (“Bud was a genius”) – both of whom performed with Powell – are unstinting in their admiration. Dizzy Gillespie said that “He laid down the basis of modern jazz piano” and even Charlie Parker, with whom Powell had some public rows, called him a genius. Chick Corea, who organized the Remembering Bud Powell project in 1997 and arranged for the release of a 1962 Swiss concert on his Stretch Records imprint, plainly noted that “Bud made a deep and lasting mark on the world of jazz piano.”

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