BUD POWELL: a time-lapse of a life via song performances



Bud Powell is remembered as the father of modern jazz piano. Breaking away from the popular style of stride piano, Bud innovated new techniques and a new sound which melded with the bebop that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had invented; he approached the piano in almost the same way that Charlie Parker did the alto saxophone.

Prior to his joining the Charlie Parker’s band, the 20 year old Bud Powell played in Cootie Williams band and notably made the first recording of Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight. But Bud’s big defining break was being asked by Charlie Parker to join his band.  Bud’s playing was the perfect counterpart to Parker’s and Dizzy’s playing; during the time spent with Parker, Powell’s playing rose to perhaps the greatest artistic heights of his career.

Powell had a fragile mental disposition and had a number of incidents- arrests, incarcerations, hospitalizations and institutionalizations that resulted from psychological and alcohol-induced incidents.  It’s unclear whether Powell’s beating and subsequent incarceration by the Philadelphia police was a symptom or cause of his personal deterioration, but the incident (which prompted his expulsion from Cootie Williams band) marked the beginning of a dark thread that followed Powell through the rest of his life.

“His tenure with Williams was terminated one night in Philadelphia, in January 1945, when he got separated from the other band members once they had left the bandstand at the end of the evening. Powell was wandering around Broad street station and was apprehended, drunk, by the private railroad police. He was beaten by them, and then briefly incarcerated by the city police. Ten days after his release, his headaches persisting, he was hospitalized—first in Bellevue, an observation ward, and then in a state psychiatric hospital, sixty miles away. He stayed there for two and a half months.

“The Parker session aside, Powell made no other records and seldom appeared at nightclubs in 1947. In November, he had an altercation with another customer at a Harlem bar. In the ensuing fight, Powell was hit over his eye with a bottle. When Harlem Hospital found him incoherent and rambunctious, it sent him to Bellevue, which had the record of his previous confinement there and in a psychiatric hospital. It chose to institutionalize him again, though this time at Creedmoor State Hospital, a facility much closer to Manhattan. He was kept there for eleven months.

Powell eventually adjusted to the conditions in the institution, though in psychiatric interviews he expressed feelings of persecution founded in racism. From February to April 1948, he received electroconvulsive therapy, first administered after an outburst deemed to be uncontrollable. It might have been prompted by his learning, after a visit by his girlfriend, that she was pregnant with their child. While the electroconvulsive therapy was said to have made no difference, the MDs gave Powell a second series of treatments in May. He was eventually released, in October 1948—though from these early and subsequent hospitalizations, he was emotionally unstable for the rest of his career.

Bebop’s and Powell’s increased visibility by the end of 1948, the latter’s celebrity seemingly having accelerated in anticipation of his release, made plain as well that he had a serious problem with alcohol. Even one drink had a profound effect on his character, making him aggressive or morose. Nonetheless, after another (though brief) hospitalization in early 1949, Powell soon attained the greatest artistic height that he ever would reach.” – wikipedia, Bud Powell

Powell continued performing, recording and touring almost up to his death in 1966, although it’s generally agreed upon that his strongest artistic period ended by the mid-50’s and Powell’s subsequent period was marked by physical and artistic decline. The videos here provide a rough snapshot of his playing as his career progressed.  While Bud always revealed himself as a gifted musician, the intensity and spark behind his playing is noticeably diminished in the 1962 clip of Anthropology, from a performance in Copenhagen.

Powell’s is a poignant story of a creative genius haunted by mental illness and substance abuse.  Despite his suffering, he managed to contribute an approach to jazz piano that both codified the language of be-bop and set a standard for all jazz pianists who followed.

“In 1963, Powell contracted tuberculosis, and the following year returned to New York with Paudras for a return engagement at Birdland accompanied by drummer Horace Arnold and bassist John Ore. Arnold calls it, “The Ultimate Performance experience of my life”. The original agreement had been for the two men to go back to Paris, but Paudras returned alone (although Powell did record in Paris, with Michel Gaudry and Art Taylor, in July 1964). In 1965, Powell played only two concerts: one a disastrous performance at Carnegie Hall, the other a tribute to Charlie Parker on May 1 with other performers on the bill, including Albert Ayler. Little else was seen of him in public.

Powell was hospitalized in New York after months of increasingly erratic behavior and self-neglect. On July 31, 1966, he died of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and alcoholism. Several thousand people viewed his Harlem funeral procession.”-wikipedia, Bud Powell

Dizzy Gillespie (tp), Charlie Parker (as), Bud Powell (p), Tommy Potter (b), Roy Haynes (ds)
Recorded:Live at “Birdland”, New York City, March 31, 1951

“Anthropology is an “I Got Rhythm” variation which originally appeared, in a slightly different form, as “Thriving on a Riff” on Parker’s first session as leader. The tempo is insanely fast; the performance is stunning. Bird has plenty of ideas in his first chorus, but he builds the second and third around a succession of quotations: “Tenderly”, “High Society”, “Temptation.” Gillespie’s second chorus is especially fine – only Fats Navarro had comparable control among the trumpeters who worked with Bird. His blazing high notes tend to set his lyrical phrases in bold relief. Bud, the ultimate bop pianist (and much more), jumps in for two note-gobbling choruses: no quotes, though, it’s all Powell. The four bar exchanges that follow demonstrate Hayne’s precision. ‘Gary Giddins

paris 1959

bud powell, piano
kenny clarke, drums
lucky thompson, tenor sax
jimmy gourley, guitar
pierre michelot, bass

Bud Powell – piano
Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – bass
Jorn Elniff – drums
Live from Café Montmartre, Copenhagen, early 1962


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