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Bud Powell


Bud Powell: Anthropology (1962)

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


Photo from the album “Take The A Train”

Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell (September 27, 1924 – July 31, 1966) was a jazz pianist who was born and raised in HarlemNew York City. While Thelonious Monk became his close friend, his greatest influence was Art Tatum. Along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Powell was a leading figure in the development of bebop, and his virtuosity as a pianist led many to call him the Charlie Parker of the piano.

Biography – Early Life

Powell’s father was a stride pianist.  Powell took to his father’s instrument and started to learn classical piano at age five from a teacher his father hired. By age ten, he had also showed interest in the jazz that could be heard all over the neighborhood. He first appeared in public at a rent party, where he mimicked Fats Waller‘s playing style. The first jazz composition that he mastered was James P. Johnson‘s “Carolina Shout.”

Bud’s older brother, William, played the trumpet, and by age fifteen, Bud was playing in his band. By this time, he had become familiar with Art Tatum, whose overwhelmingly virtuosic technique Powell then set out to equal.  Bud’s younger brother, Richie, and his teenage friend Elmo Hope, were also accomplished pianists who had significant careers.

New York

bud_index_at_pianoBud, though underage, was soon exposed to the exciting, musically adventurous atmosphere at Uptown House, an after-hours venue that was near where he lived. It was here that the first stirrings of modernism could be heard on a nightly basis, and where Charlie Parker first appeared when he was unattached to a band and stayed briefly in New York.  Thelonious Monk had some involvement there, but by the time that he and Powell met (around 1942) the elder pianist/composer was able to introduce Powell to the circle of bebop musicians which was starting to form at Minton’s Playhouse. Monk was resident there and, consequently, presented Powell as his protégé. The mutual affection grew to where Monk was Powell’s greatest mentor and dedicated his composition “In Walked Bud” to him.

In the early 1940’s, Powell played in a few dance orchestras, including that of Cootie Williams, whom Powell’s mother decided her son should play for and tour with (rather than accept an offer from Oscar Pettiford and Dizzy Gillespie, whose modernist quintet was about to open at a midtown nightclub). Powell was the pianist on a handful of Williams’s recording dates in 1944, the last of which included the first-ever recording of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” His tenure with Williams was terminated one night in January 1945, when he got separated from the band after a Philadelphia dance engagement and was apprehended, drunk, by railroad police inside a station. He was beaten by them, and then briefly detained by the city police. Shortly after his release and return to Harlem, he was hospitalized—first in Bellevue, an observation ward, and then in a psychiatric hospital, sixty miles away. He stayed there for two and a half months.

Powell resumed playing in Manhattan immediately, in demand by various small-group leaders for nightclub engagements in the increasingly integrated midtown scene. His 1945-46 recordings, many as the result of his sudden visibility on the club scene, were for Frank SocolowDexter GordonJ. J. JohnsonSonny StittFats Navarro, and Kenny Clarke. Powell soon became renowned for his ability to play at fast tempos. His percussive punctuation of certain phrases, as well as his predilection for speed, showed the influence of Parker and other modern horn soloists.  Bebop in Pastel (Bouncing with Bud) was first recorded on August 23 1946 and became a jazz standard.

Powell’s career advanced when Parker chose him to be his pianist on a quintet record date, with Miles DavisTommy Potter, and Max Roach in May 1947. Powell demonstrated his mature style on the third complete take of “Donna Lee,” where he got a brief solo spot, and with his jocular chord fills while the horn players paused to breathe during “Buzzy”, the last tune recorded. When the quintet came together for the final ensemble section, Powell’s piano made its final, sarcastic comment on the proceedings.

bud_powell_scene_changesHospitalization (1947–1948)

The Parker session aside, Powell was inactive for most of 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 in reaction to 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.

Solo and trio recordings (1949–1958)

It is generally agreed that from 1949 through 1953 Powell made his best recordings, most of which were for Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records and for Norman Granz of Mercury, Norgran and Clef. The first Blue Note session, in August 1949, features Fats NavarroSonny Rollins, Powell, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, and the compositions “Bouncing with Bud” and “Dance of the Infidels”. The second Blue Note session in 1951 was a trio with Russell and Roach, and includes “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Un Poco Loco;” the latter was selected by literary critic Harold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the greatest works of twentieth-century American art. Sessions for Granz (more than a dozen) were all solo or trios, with a variety of bassists and drummers, including Ray BrownGeorge DuvivierPercy Heath, Russell, Lloyd TrotmanArt BlakeyKenny ClarkeOsie JohnsonBuddy Rich, Roach, and Art Taylor.

Powell’s continued rivalry with Parker, while essential to the production of brilliant music, was also the subject of disruptive feuding and bitterness on the bandstand, as a result of Powell’s troubled mental and physical condition.

Powell recorded for both Blue Note and Granz throughout the fifties, interrupted by another long stay in a mental hospital from late 1951 to early 1953, following arrest for possession of marijuana. He was released into the guardianship of Oscar Goodstein, the owner of the Birdland nightclub. A 1953 trio session for Blue Note (with Duvivier and Taylor) included Powell’s composition “Glass Enclosure”, inspired by his near-imprisonment in Goodstein’s apartment.

His playing after his release from hospital began to be seriously affected by Largactil, taken for the treatment of schizophrenia. And by the late fifties, his talent was in eclipse. In 1956, his brother Richie was killed in a car crash alongside Clifford Brown. Three albums for Blue Note in the late fifties showcased Powell’s ability as a composer, but his playing was far removed from the standard set by his earlier recordings for the label.

budpowellParis (1959–1963)

After several further spells in hospital, Powell moved to Paris in 1959, in the company of Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards, whom he had met after an incarceration in 1954.  In Paris, Powell worked in a trio with Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. Buttercup, though, did not have Powell’s best interests in mind. She kept control of his finances and overdosed him with Largactil, but Powell continued to perform and record. The 1960 live recording of the Essen jazz festival performance (with Clarke, Oscar Pettiford and, on some numbers, Coleman Hawkins) is particularly notable.

In December 1961, he recorded two albums for Columbia Records under the aegis of Cannonball AdderleyA Portrait of Thelonious (with Michelot and Clarke), and A Tribute to Cannonball (with the addition of Don Byas and Idrees Sulieman—despite the title, Adderley only plays on one alternative take). The first album (with overdubbed audience noise) was released shortly after Powell’s death, and the second was released in the late 1970s. Eventually, Powell was befriended by Francis Paudras, a commercial artist and amateur pianist, and Powell moved into Paudras’s home in 1962. There was a brief return to Blue Note in 1963, when Dexter Gordon recorded Our Man in Paris for the label. Powell was a last-minute substitute for Kenny Drew, and the album of standards—Powell could not by then learn new material—showed him to be still capable of playing with some proficiency.

Last years (1964–1966)

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 Pettiford and Clarke, 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.

budpowellheaderMusical Style

Jazz pianist Bill Cunliffe, whose music was influenced by Bud Powell, said in an interview with All About Jazz:

“Bud Powell is the most important pianist in jazz and one of the most underrated because he spent over a third of his life in mental and medical hospitals. He was beaten by the police when he was twenty and he never fully recovered from that beating and as a result, he suffered pain and had to take drugs to alleviate the pain. So he never fully recovered from that and in spite of that, he created a whole lot of wonderful music. He was really the first guy, before Bud Powell, pianists were playing boom, chuck in the left hand and a lot of melodic figures in the right hand that tended to be arpeggios. But with Bud Powell, Bud Powell was imitating Charlie Parker. So Bud was the first pianist to take Charlie Parker’s language and adapt it successfully to the piano. That’s why he is the most important pianist in music today because everybody plays like that now.”

His playing of melodic lines owed most to Billy Kyle, and his accompaniments to horn solos owed most to the style of Earl Hines. At other times, Powell’s accompanying recalled stride and, on occasion, the graceful approach of pianist Teddy Wilson. His comping often consisted of single bass notes outlining the root and fifth. He also used a tenth, with the minor seventh included.

Where his solos could be heard to emulate the horn players’ attack—with the use of frequent arpeggios punctuated by chromaticism—this was, in part, because of his determination to see that the pianist get the adulation usually reserved for the saxophonist or trumpeter.  Powell’s progressive exploration, on nightclub bandstands, of the harmonic series often produced brilliant, thrillingly unexpected solos. But his generally rough-edged execution was the price that his music paid for his virtuosic striving. Many later pianists, nonetheless, copied his daring attack, looking to attain that rarefied status, of the fearless improviser. They also emulated his lush melodicism on ballads.

Powell freed the right hand for continuous linear exploration at the expense of developing the left. Legend has it that one night Art Tatum criticized him as he came off the bandstand after playing a set. Powell responded in his next set by soloing on a piece exclusively with his left hand.

His favoring the treble was not to avoid integrating the hands, which is essential to both a solo and accompanying technique. These [disambiguation needed] formed the basic small ensembles that have dominated jazz since the bebop era (after swing). Before Powell, Art Tatum and Earl Hines had also somewhat explored independent homophony closely resembling later piano playing.


The pianist Bill Evans paid Powell a tribute in 1979:

“If I had to choose one single musician for his artistic integrity, for the incomparable originality of his creation and the grandeur of his work, it would be Bud Powell. He was in a class by himself.”

In 1986 Paudras wrote a book about his friendship with Powell, translated into English in 1997 as Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell. The book was the basis for Round Midnight, a film inspired by the lives of Powell and Lester Young, in which Dexter Gordon played the lead role of an expatriate jazzman in Paris. In February 2012 a biography titled Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman was released as an ebook.


Years listed are years recorded (not years released).

Bud20Powell-Paris-2f67cStudio Recordings

Live and home recordings

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