In 2004, Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write an homage to Bud Powell, who is my “first among equals” favorite, my main man of all the jazzfolk on the timeline. For Bud’s 87th birth anniversary, here it is.
[And spend some time with Ethan Iverson’s exhaustive, four-part post on Bud on his essential blog, Do The Math.]
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Early in August of 1964, Earl “Bud” Powell, accompanied by his friend and caretaker, Francis Paudras, flew to New York City from Paris, Powell’s residence since 1959, for a 10-week billing at Birdland, Powell’s primary venue during the previous decade, when bebop was in vogue.
Eager to soak up the master, New York’s musicians flocked to the club for opening night. In the liner notes of Return To Birdland, ‘64 [Mythic Sound], Paudras described the scene as he and the pianist arrived.
“There were two rows of men, face to face, on each side of the door. I recognized immediately many familiar faces. To the right in the front line, his face shining with joy, there was Bobby Timmons; next to him, Wynton Kelly, then Barry Harris, Kenny Dorham, Walter Davis, Walter Bishop, McCoy Tyner, Charles McPherson, Erroll Garner, Sam Jones, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Lonnie Hillyer…there were others, but my memory fails me. Bud stopped short, and at that moment, we could hear discreet applause. Then he started walking toward the stairway, and at that precise instant, Bobby Timmons took his hand and kissed it discreetly. He was at once imitated by his neighbor and all the others with a kind of frenzied devotion… We went down the stairs escorted by this wonderful guard.”
A spontaneous 17-minute standing ovation ensued as Powell approached the bandstand, and the engagement began its roller-coaster path. As the week progressed, Powell, ensconced in a hotel around the corner, touched base with such old friends and colleagues as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Babs Gonzalez. He also met a more recent arrival who had changed the scene in his absence.
“One morning we were about to go out for breakfast when the doorbell rang,” Paudras wrote in Dance Of The Infidels [DaCapo], which documents the ups and downs of his five-year relationship with Powell. “I opened it to find a young man standing there. His face looked familiar but I couldn’t place him at that moment. ‘Is Mr. Powell in, please?’ ‘Yes, of course. Your name?’ ‘Ornette Coleman.’ I called Bud and Ornette introduced himself. ‘Good morning, Mr. Powell. My name is Ornette Coleman. I’m a saxophonist and all my music is based on the intervals and changes of the sevenths in your left hand.’”
Perhaps the anecdote is apocryphal or mistranslated; Coleman was not available to confirm its authenticity. But the encomium illuminates the breadth of Powell’s impact on the sound of modern jazz. As is well documented in the history books, Powell extrapolated the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano and interpreted them with his own singular stamp, incorporating the rhythmic self-sufficiency and harmonic ambition of stride maestros like Willie The Lion Smith and James P. Johnson; the fluent linearity of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Billy Kyle; and the aesthetic of virtuosity embodied by Art Tatum. Such next-generation stylistic signifiers as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Cedar Walton used Powell’s “blowing piano” style, a staccato attack that evoked the dynamism of a horn, as the primary building block for their own approaches.
If a musician’s music bespeaks a personal narrative, Powell’s biography tells volumes about his art. In early 1945, either a Georgia cracker, a Philadelphia cop or—citing Miles Davis’ autobiography—a Savoy Ballroom bouncer smashed the high-spirited youngster in the head, triggering the massive headaches and a pattern of impulsively aggressive and self-abusive behavior that found him confined more often than not in mental hospitals. Heavy use of alcohol and narcotics destabilized Powell’s personality; repeated electroshock treatments dulled his reflexes and acuity. Yet, between 1946 and 1953, he played magnificently and made his greatest recordings, for Roost, Blue Note, and Norgran, including original compositions with titles like “Glass Enclosure,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Hallucinations,” “Oblivion,” “The Fruit” and “Dance of the Infidels.”
As the titles suggest, a turbulent, sometimes demonic lucidity permeates Powell’s music. It grabs you by the throat, connecting you to the processes by which various polarities of the human condition—wretchedness and grace, madness and genius, the profane and the sacred—can play out in real time. Sometimes Powell projects the oceanic emotions of 19th century Romanticism through a prism molded by the hard-boiled, warp-speed ambiance of New York City after World War Two. Sometimes the template is not unlike the the piercing novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Chester Himes and Hubert Selby, all fellow masters at conjuring vivid, unsparing chronicles of the lacerating consequences of mortal foible.
Born in 1924, Powell honed his jazz sensibility as a teenager, jamming on bandstands around Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and, most consequentially, in Harlem, his home turf. At Minton’s Playhouse, he met Thelonious Monk, the house pianist, who was working out the chords and intervals that became the foundation of the music known as bebop. Monk took the youngster under his wing, and, according to drummer Kenny Clarke, his Minton’s partner, he wrote many of his now iconic tunes with Powell in mind, on the notion that he was the only pianist who could play them. You can hear Monk’s influence on several of the 18 sides Powell recorded with Ellington veteran Cootie Williams in 1944, specifically in a tumbling solo on “Honeysuckle Rose” and his jagged comping on “My Old Flame.” Pianist Barry Harris, 15 at the time, remarks on Powell’s finesse, how deftly he “double-timed and ran the most beautiful minor arpeggios” underneath Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s vocal on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” But Powell’s two fleet, elegant choruses on “Blue Garden Blues” show he’d been listening to someone else as well.
“When I met Bud, he was playing pretty much what you would call prebop,” says Billy Taylor, who moved to New York in 1944. “I used to see him uptown a lot, and we hung out. He was light-hearted then, didn’t take himself all that seriously, and was fun to be around. He liked Fats Waller and some other things I liked, and we’d jam together, just playing stride. I have enjoyable memories. We used to argue a lot, because I was very much into Art Tatum, while Bud said, ‘I want to make the piano sound as much like Charlie Parker as I can.’ I said, ‘That’s cool, but that doesn’t use all of the piano. Tatum has some pianistic things that any pianist should try to get into. Check it out.’ He said, ‘I have checked it out, and I know what Tatum plays. But that’s not where I’m going. You work your way and I’ll work my way.’ By 1950, he was making the piano sound just like Charlie Parker. Those lines that he played were long and complicated and very well played. He dominated that instrument. He had all the nuances pianistically under control as he played.”
“All of Bud’s vocabulary—extensive use of arpeggios and arpeggios with chord tone alterations, and playing altered dominant chords in such a way that they resolve to the next chord—comes straight out of Bird,” says David Hazeltine. “But the way he adapted it to the piano was very interesting. Piano is a difficult instrument, and it presents problems for playing linearly that the saxophone or trumpet do not. On saxophone, all the fingers stay on the same keys all the time; it’s a matter of coordinating different combinations of keys, like octave leaps and different positions. On piano, the distance is represented on the keyboard and you need to execute physically exactly what you’re playing—cross over and cross under and so on. Bud’s arpeggios are effortless; he made his language very playable. It’s bebop and melodic playing without a bunch of acrobatic pianistic tricks.”
A child prodigy, Powell developed his technique through intense study of the European tradition. “Bud was very heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, and also by the Romantics—Debussy and Chopin,” says Eric Reed, whose information on the subject comes from Bertha Hope, the widow of pianist Elmo Hope, Powell’s childhood friend and himself a musician of brilliance. “He and Elmo Hope practiced the inventions when they were kids. When Bud’s mother would leave for church, they’d start getting into some jazz stuff, and when she came back, they’d be practicing Bach, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. You can hear a connection to Baroque music in the contour and construction of Bud Powell’s improvised lines—the way it moves, the succession of notes, in the complexity of the lines. Bach’s music has a similar rhythmic propulsion, a continuity that’s very similar to bebop.”
Perhaps the most astonishing component of Powell’s tonal personality is how he deployed his technique to conjure fresh, viscerally primal stories at volcanic emotional heat. “Bud never played the same thing twice,” Powell’s long-time drummer Arthur Taylor told me in 1992. “He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song.” He always elaborated a point of view. As Bill Charlap notes, “Bud dealt with thought and idea and structure and architecture, using the piano to tell you what he thought about music.”
“Bud wasn’t just throwing licks around,” agrees Vijay Iyer, a pianist born almost a decade after Powell’s death in 1966. “You hear him make decisions in real time and act on them. There’s a thought process made audible. That’s what that music was about. There’s so much at stake in that moment when you’re creating in real time, and to be able to come up with something in spite of all the obstacles and constraints he faced is an inspiring story.”
There are naysayers. A number of musicians, most vociferously Oscar Peterson, consider Powell an incompletely pianistic pianist. “Granted, he could swing,” Peterson wrote in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey. “But I never regarded him as a member of the central dynasty of piano defined by such great players as Tatum, [Teddy] Wilson and Hank Jones. Bud was a linear group player, who could comp like mad for bebop horns and could certainly produce cooking lines that had tremendous articulation, but for my taste there was too much that he didn’t do with the instrument. He lacked Hank’s broad, spacious touch on ballads, and he failed to finish his ideas too often for comfort and satisfaction. Despite his strength of linear invention, in fact, he had a technique problem: although other musicians and I could intuit where those unfinished lines were going, an unschooled audience was left to play a guessing game, having to make do with grunts of tension in place of delivered ideas. It took a long time for players like Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and me to get pupils to realize that the linear approach is not enough on its own. Bud may have symbolized an era, but not true piano mastery.”
Billy Taylor indirectly references this criticism with the following anecdote. “Mary Lou Williams came to Monk and Bud and said, ‘You guys are too good not to have the kind of piano sound you should.’ She brought them to her house, fed them and hung out with them for a while, and literally changed their sound at the piano. I don’t recall the exact date, but each was recording for Blue Note at the time. If you listen to some things from maybe two years later, you’ll hear the difference.”
Today’s jazz people learn touch and everything else in a less homegrown manner, and perhaps the evolution of jazz vocabulary has led younger aspirants to consign Powell to the outer branches of the piano tree. “Bud Powell exemplifies the language of bebop, and he’s the starting point for contemporary jazz piano, so you have to check him out,” says Edward Simon. That being said, Simon sees Powell’s position on the timeline as specialized. “Bud’s harmonic concept was modern at the time,” he says. “But most people today draw on later pianists for harmony. I think his contribution was more in the way he breathed his lines, and connected the notes smoothly, in a legato style, which isn’t easy to do on a piano.”
“They’re the more developed pianists,” says Hazeltine of Hancock, Tyner and Chick Corea. “It’s more impressive at a first listening. Bud’s music isn’t as polished and smooth and slick as, say, the classically schooled Herbie Hancock. I know Bud played Bach and referred to classical music, but that’s not where he’s coming from.”
Hancock is on record that “every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from him,” a point which Eric Reed elaborates. “Bebop is useful under certain circumstances, but if that’s where you stop, you’ll be limited,” he says. “I think many piano players, great as they think Bud Powell is, try to use that vocabulary in their own way. Listen to Herbie’s solo on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ with Miles Davis. It’s in the bebop style in his phrasing and the way he runs the lines, although the notes and harmonies are very different.”
“Bud Powell is definitely in the top ten of the greatest jazz pianists that ever lived,” Reed continues, and numerous pianists, young and old, still regard Powell as the sine qua non. “Most of the younger pianists that I’ve heard, even Chick and Herbie, don’t attempt to get Bud’s rhythmic power,” Billy Taylor says. “Younger pianists play very well, and technically much cleaner in some respects. But I don’t hear that physical will to make the piano do certain things—Willie The Lion used to call it making the piano roar. I don’t think they have the point of reference. Most of them don’t want to spend that much time to get Bud when they don’t think the end result is what they’re looking for.”
Still, Charlap notes, 21st century pianists have much to learn from Powell. “His solos have no loose or wasted notes, and every note clearly relates to the bassline and underlining harmonies,” he begins. “But he also was so free with the rhythm, and created such rhythmic nuance within the line, like playing drums on the piano. It’s not like playing a perfectly even Mozartian scale. But you have to be able to play those notes very evenly to be able to make the choice of how to make the rhythms pop the way that he did. A Bud Powell solo will deal with all manner of rhythmic devices; he had them at his disposal all the time and would rest on any place of the beat. His solos aren’t just the notes, but the attitude and the way the notes speak—like trying to get wind behind the notes. Bud made that all come through at the piano. I can see how someone who is approaching the piano from Chopin through Liszt may be more dismissive of using the piano to do vocal or drum-oriented things. But before they’re dismissive of it, I’d like to hear them sit down and do it. It’s a different way of approaching the instrument. I tell students, ‘It looks the same, but as a jazz musician this isn’t the same instrument that you play Chopin on.’”
“I tend to think of him as a tragic genius, which is found in all the arts,” Moran says. Tormented and impoverished, Powell died in Brooklyn, not long after his 42nd birthday. But his search for truth and beauty at all costs will resonate as long as musicians seek apotheosis in the act of musical creation. Barry Harris recalls a revelatory conversation with a New York pianist of his acquaintance. “He said him and some cats went by Bud’s house early one morning,” Harris relates. “He was playing ‘Embraceable You.’ They said, ‘Come on, let’s go and have a ball.’ Bud said, ‘No.’ So they left and did whatever they were going to do, messed around all day, and when they returned that night, and knocked on Bud’s door and went inside, he was still playing ‘Embraceable You.’”
As Harris puts it, Powell practiced playing, and he wasn’t doing it for a school assignment. It was the most serious thing in life. “A lot of us take this for granted, but they were actually CREATING bebop on such a high level,” Moran says. “It was like a science, and they put a lot of time and experimentation into their process. That’s what makes this music so revered, and everybody HAS to refer to it. Some people can’t stop referring to it.”