Perfect Sound Forever

Bud Powell:
Inside the Glass Enclosure

photograph by Francis Wolff, copyright Mosaic Images

By D.A. Nation (March 2002)

In a January 1996 interview with Atlantic Monthly, music critic and writer Francis Davis, discussing "Bud's Bubble," his critical essay on Bud Powell from the same issue, explained that bebop, or bop, is no longer a sub-genre within jazz, but rather a style that "has become jazz in a sense." That sense, he went on to explain, is the way in which jazz is no longer music to dance to- it's a music to listen to, an art as opposed to a form of entertainment. There are a handful of players generally credited with inventing bebop, and with a few exceptions (one of them obviously being Duke Ellington), these creators are largely responsible for the artistic respectability of the genre.

Bud Powell is often called the father of the bebop piano, and credited with translating Charlie Parker's innovations to fit the keyboard. In essence, he reconfigured the instrument and influenced every jazz pianist that followed. It's interesting to note however that Powell developed his style on the piano as a contemporary and a peer of Parker's and not a student or disciple. Both were accomplished musicians at an early age, both began their careers in big bands; Parker in Jay McShann's band and Powell in Cootie Williams'. There is recorded evidence with those bands of both men's musical progression that indicates concurrent development. It's also interesting to note that both men were plagued by similar self-destructive tendencies, physical and mental health problems and both underwent electroshock treatments, at roughly the same time, which possibly suggests a concentric basis for a style of music that so accurately expresses conflicting emotion and internal (as well as external) struggle.

At the same time, as Davis explained in the essay, "the question of how much Powell owed Parker also ignores his arguably greater debt to two fellow pianists, Art Tatum and Thelonius Monk." But I think, more to the point, the pursuit of influences and mentors ignores the significant contributions Powell made to bebop through his own style and approach, and perhaps more significantly his original compositions - which show him to be, when at the height of creative powers, simultaneously on the brink of complete chaos, capable of a frightening level of introspection and intricately wired to the world he lived in.

Born in Harlem in 1924, the son of a building superintendent - who was reportedly a proficient stride pianist - Powell himself was a prodigy, classically trained and able by age ten to play in the style of Art Tatum and Fats Weller. By 1940, he was taking part in informal jam sessions at Minton's Play House and running with a coterie of NYC jazz musicians that included Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. He made his first recordings at age 19 with Williams' band. In addition to his skill and talent, Powell was also known for his erratic behavior, but in 1945 he suffered a blow to the head that began a pattern of institutionalization and deterioration that would both shape and destroy his career. The circumstances of Powell's injury are uncertain.

According to Thomas Fitterling, author of Thelonius Monk: His life and music Powell was beaten defending Monk from the police during a raid at the Savoy Ballroom.

 "...the police stormed the club and went after Monk. He refused to show his identification, and was forcibly arrested. A fan barred the door and challenged the officers. They tried to push him aside, but he wouldn't budge. 'Stop,' he yelled. 'You don't know what you're doing. You're mistreating the greatest pianist in the world!' At this point the nightstick came down on his head like a lightening bolt. The young fan was Monk's best friend, Bud Powell. "

 Miles Davis, in his autobiography Miles, claimed that Bud was pistol whipped by a bouncer in at the Savoy Ballroom for being cocky and refusing to pay the cover.

"...he had gone up to the Savoy ballroom in Harlem dressed in his all-black outfit that he used to like to wear. He had his boys from the Bronx with him, who, he used to brag, 'would kick anybody's ass.' So he goes up to the Savoy without any money in his pocket, and the bouncer, who knew him, told him who couldn't go in without any money. But he's saying this to Bud Powell, the greatest young piano player in the world, and Bud knew this. So Bud just walked right past the motherfucker. The bouncer did what he was being paid to do. He broke Bud's head all the way open, cracked him upside his head with a pistol."

 Dexter Gordon, in an interview with jazz critic Ira Gitler, contended that Powell was arrested in a Philadelphia train station for drunk and disorderly conduct while on tour with Cootie Williams, and was beaten while in custody. Concrete evidence withstanding, more Powell biographies prefer the romanticism of Monk's account, citing the composition "In Walked Bud" as evidence of Monk's gratitude. Miles Davis' version, although seemingly less sympathetic paints Powell as a bad-ass, instead of a victim and allows him to retain a strange dignity. In reality the particulars matter less than the results, and even those are refutable.

By all recollections Powell was first hospitalized as a result of headaches that began shortly after he was beaten. It was around this time that his slip into substance abuse began. Miles Davis recalled that even Charlie Parker didn't want Powell around because he "got too high." Davis' version is the only account of Powell's heroin use, most biographies claim he was only a drinker, but a heavy drinker.

In 1947, during a stay in Bellevue, Powell was given ECT, or electroshock treatment for the first time. Four years later, while a patient at Pilgrim State hospital he received another. In typical display of necessary bitterness, Miles Davis speculated, "I sometimes wonder if those white doctors gave him shock treatments on purpose, to cut him off from himself, like they did to Bird."

It's true that Powell was entering a creative peak when the treatments began, and that all but one of his significant recordings were made in the years in between his two treatments. Furthermore, all of his important original compositions were solidified during this period.

 In the sessions he recorded during those few years, Powell managed to create some of the most memorable jazz tracks of the era. In particular I would cite The Amazing Bud Powell sessions recorded for Blue Note in 1949 and Jazz Giant, consisting of two sessions recorded in 1949 and 1950 for Verve. A significant number of originals appear between the two sessions, six on the Blue Note, and another five on the Verve.

Still, it seems though that far too many people dismiss Powell's work as technically impressive but artistically lacking. This may have something to do with his incredible speed, and also the way in which he revolutionized the left hand's role in jazz piano playing. Previously, while the right hand established melody, the left controlled the stride, even and rhythmic, as apparent in swing.

 Powell used his left hand to accent off beats, and often he seemed to drum with the left rather than roll with it. The left hand produced dissonant chords that subverted the melody and sometimes the tempo, although most frequently everything in Powell's music was overpowered by timing- an idea worth examining in a figurative manner. To imply that this unique way of playing didn't convey meaning of any kind is unfair. Understandable perhaps that speed and dexterity are often considered the result of strenuous practice and natural talent, and used often to the effect of showboating, but what Powell was playing with his left hand, was often uncomfortable to hear, and seemed to be trying to communicate a chasm within himself, and between himself and his environment.

"Tempus Fugit," "Un Poco Loco" (literally, "time flies" and "a little crazy") as well as "Glass Enclosure" all suggest in some way being grounded amongst motion, being out of sync with ones' surroundings. Like many of Powell's recorded works these tracks teeter on the verge of dissipating into weak chaos. Even the most light hearted of his melodies, when juxtaposed with the left hand accents, indicate something jagged.

Going one step further, the dates of these recordings and the number of original compositions suggest the real tragedy and achievement of Powell's art. That he knew what was happening to him, and also knew that he wouldn't always be in command of his own mind, because he had experienced a glimpse of that day already. It's likely this produced an urgency in his work, and an anxiety that really meshed with some of the most progressive ideas of his time - a time that saw existentialism collide with post modern philosophy, a time that saw war, that saw a thick gloss coated over almost all tragedies that couldn't be easily hidden - in a way that he couldn't have done had he not felt so pressed and so close to the void.

One of the most striking of any Powell recording is his two minute 50 second version of Arlen and Koehler's "Get Happy" played at a compulsive speed, the music box melody is a mockery of the song's expressed notion. It becomes maniacal and irrational and yet persists, only to be dragged back by an irregularly spaced, low ploddish chord that barely has a chance to make it's point. It's like the sound of being unwilling to fight.

 Indeed it does seem that whether he gave in or ran out, Powell's career ended long before his life was over. His last significant album was the 1953 recording of his concert at Massey Hall in Toronto. He moved to Paris in the late fifties and returned to New York in 1964, two years later he died. The end of his life, much of which was spent sick, drunk and incoherent, was the inspiration for Dexter Gordon's roll in the 1986 film Round Midnight. Even in Paris Powell's reputation was that of an afflicted man as much as it was one of a visionary. By the time he arrived to that sanctuary, he was far away, and surrounded by people, who as Davis recalled "thought he might have been just a drunken bum." But the legacy, carried out in his music, his style, is that of a man completely in step with a place in time that very few people, only the brightest and strangest, could measure out.

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