Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2009: Sophie Milman

Bud Powell (1924-66)

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Earl “Bud” Powell’s life was unhappy and painful, but his piano playing was exceptional, innovative, and very influential. The grandson of a flamenco guitarist and son of a stride pianist, Powell grew up in New York City. Before turning to jazz at age fifteen, when he joined a band led by his brother, a trumpeter, Powell played classical piano. As a teenager, Powell was a regular at the crucible of bebop, Minton’s Playhouse in New York City. It was there he fell under the spell of the bebop innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. Before he turned eighteen, Powell had played with Parker and was being mentored by Monk, who became Powell’s lifelong friend. In 1944, he made his first record, with a band led by trumpeter Cootie Williams. The album included the premiere recording of Monk’s “Round Midnight.”

The following year, at the age of twenty-one, in a racially motivated altercation with the police, Powell was beaten over the head. His personality changed, he started suffering from headaches, and for the rest of his life, he suffered periodic mental breakdowns. Later that year, Powell was institutionalized for the first time. In 1951, he was arrested for possession of narcotics. He was hospitalized for several months and received electroshock treatments. There was another hospital stay in 1959. To escape many of the pressures he was experiencing, and to make a better living as a musician, he moved to Paris in 1959 and stayed until 1964. There he fell ill with tuberculosis. (The character played by Dexter Gordon in the movie ‘Round Midnight was loosely based on Bud Powell.)

To appreciate Bud Powell’s greatness, you need to know that in the late 1940s, a great number of pianists played stride, a style that is similar to ragtime but has more syncopation. Powell pioneered a more fluid approach, employing frequent arpeggios (a chord played one note at a time) and unusual, surprising accents. His playing had a huge influence on a younger generation of pianists, including Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner.

Unfortunately, Powell’s recording career was inconsistent. His mental problems and alcoholism often prevented him from providing his best efforts. But many of the good moments can be found on The Best of Bud Powell: The Blue Note Years [Blue Note #93204].

The CD comprises fifteen pieces from 1949-63. “Bouncing with Bud” and “52nd Street Theme” are two of the most influential songs of Powell’s career. An all-star quintet, featuring Fats Navarro on trumpet, Sonny Rollins (only eighteen at the time) on tenor sax, Roy Haynes on drums, and Tommy Potter on bass, delivers plenty of fresh ideas in the bop tradition. The gorgeous “Parisian Thoroughfare” is one of Powell’s best-loved songs and predates his move to Paris by eight years. Powell’s playing is eloquent and powerful. Another well-known number is the athletic bopper “Un Poco Loco,” which features Powell in a trio with Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. “Collard Greens and Black-Eyed Peas” is perhaps the most memorable song in the collection. Here, bassist George Duvivier lays down a strong, steady foundation, and Powell’s shapely piano playing is one of the highlights of the compilation.

Bud Powell died on August 1, 1966, from a lethal combination of tuberculosis, alcoholism, and malnutrition.

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