Sonny Rollins was approaching the Harlem apartment of pianist Bud Powell when he bumped into fellow saxophonist Jackie McLean. Rollins, who was beginning to enjoy godly status in modern jazz, dared to challenge Charlie (Bird) Parker’s supremacy by asking McLean an unspeakable question:
“Who’s the baddest, Bud or Bird?”
McLean, in an account of the 1950 meeting offered recently to Verve Records, feigned surprise. The obvious and redemptive answer was Bird. Parker had just transformed jazz, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, by creating a new vocabulary called bebop, and more than anyone else he was bop’s dazzling executioner.
But Rollins, busy learning Powell’s intricate original compositions from Powell himself, bored in and told McLean, “You better think about that and listen .”
Bud Powell stories are so often like that.
Powell, who died in 1966, was never widely known. Yet his music and playing--particularly among musicians--were revered and considered seminal. Bud Powell is arguably jazz’s leading exemplar of a familiar, rueful truth in all high art: True greatness often eludes.
This apparently stems from the fact that it is defined by the acts of individuals whose imaginative grasp often exceeds our aesthetic reach--or at least the vocabulary with which to name what it is they’ve created.
Earl (Bud) Powell was at work more invisibly in the 1940s in bringing bebop to the keyboard and then taking it farther still: into borderless realms of plummeting depth and shocking power.
With diminishing debt to Monk, Powell created an ultramodern language of playing in which his blindingly fast right hand would etch searing, unbroken sonic images--rapid and sweet descending triplets here, a crashing series of ascending filled octaves there--while his left hand stabbed dissonantly at chords in the lower and middle registers.
The sound he created was itself a full breathing personality, unchecked and insistent: dark, light, tender, violent, assuring, threatening. He was, plainly, the guy with the sparkler: slashing the darkness in ordered frenzy and creating art by retinal burn.
Powell did this on standards of the day--a schmaltzy “Over the Rainbow” became an edgy, modern escapade in his hands--as well as in a durable canon of original, complex compositions that include his aptly titled “Un Poco Loco.”
His invention was of such a scale that anointed leaders of the music studied it, deconstructed it and, in the case of most pianists, made it a foundation of their playing.
Johnny Griffin would be the one to capture the sentiments of numerous musicians when he said the density and unrelenting force of Powell’s playing--at times startling, at times inspiring, always astonishingly precise--would “make you afraid.”
Bud Powell just never became a household name, even if successive popular pianists of the day were derivative of him. Powell’s music just never got its due.
T hat may well change now.
Blue Note and Verve Records have just released archival sets of their Bud Powell recording sessions. The releases, occasioned by what would have been Powell’s 70th birthday in September, are designed to introduce Powell’s music to an audience beyond musicians and jazz zealots.
To that end, the sets have an affectionate biographical feel, as they match extensive text treatments with ‘40s and ‘50s recordings that ebb and flow with Powell’s disturbed personality.
The great unspoken and uncomprehended dimension of Bud Powell’s music was, in fact, his own form of madness. The terrible truth is that Powell was beset by emotional problems that landed him, serially, in mental institutions and alcohol dependence that landed him, periodically, in the gutter.
But the nature of his debility, which is forever bound to the protean music these sets reveal, leaves an uncomfortable trail of questions: To what extent was his art fostered or hindered by his troubles? To what extent was he helped or ignored by friends and associate musicians? If Powell had lived a full, healthful life--he died in a Brooklyn hospital of liver failure and malnutrition at age 41--would his arresting music have expanded still more?
What, in the end, is left to instruct on the nature of artistic greatness in a soul so battered, so tortured, so proximate to a complete loss of dignity?
There are faint clues in the music and restrained speculations in these reissue collections. Taken together, however, they gather strength and wreak a subterranean pull that begs the more basic question of what it is that creates real art.
Powell suffered a terrific beating over the head by Philadelphia police following a performance in 1945, and many of his contemporaries said that he never was the same again. What the same was, however, is widely debated.
Powell was always reticent and quirky, given to the impulsive, the unpredictable, the childlike. What is clear is that the beating marked the beginning of a period in which he would face extended stays in hospitals that gave him extensive electroshock treatments.
His time out of the hospitals was thus neatly brokered between playing at New York’s Birdland or recording for Verve-owned labels and Blue Note. Unpredictability so defined Powell that the manager of Birdland became his guardian upon release from Creedmore, the New York psychiatric facility, and he was kept, under lock, in a Birdland-leased apartment.
But art has never cottoned to custody, and so Powell talked through the keyboard. He wrote “Glass Enclosure,” among other vivid and bristling compositions, while living in Birdland’s mid-town “jail.”
Powell’s increasing remoteness and erratic behavior was accompanied by a diminishing tolerance of alcohol. One drink would disable him; he would become lost, even ghostly. On more than one occasion, musical associates of the era recall Powell appearing mysteriously at a club’s piano only to play ferociously and soundlessly--he wouldn’t let the keys strike fully, or make sound. The result was apparitionlike and fleeting: Powell would then run out as suddenly as he’d appeared.
People would not talk to Powell about these episodes, as Powell barely spoke. He did, however, speak with vulnerability to pianist Marian McPartland, who visited him at Creedmore and offers perhaps the most poignant remembrance in the Verve treatments.
“Marian,” she recalls Powell as saying, “do people remember me?”
F or a while, they did.
As both the Verve and the Blue Note CDs attest, Powell’s surging and seamless musical architectures of the late 1940s and early 1950s gave way to episodic incoherence and, at worst in the late ‘50s, a still-pleasing but hologrammatic shell suggestive of his former self.
Powell’s move to Paris in 1959 buoyed him, as Parisian audiences knew Powell music well but were less inclined than New Yorkers to hold him to previously recorded zeniths. Moreover, Powell’s most appreciative fan, a Frenchman named Francis Paudras, acted as protector and keeper at every level.
Musicians, of course, have always remembered Powell and his music.
In 1966, following Powell’s death, Herbie Hancock told Down Beat magazine: "(Bud Powell) was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano; every pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him.” Twenty years later, upon winning the 1986 Oscar for his score to the Powell-based film “ ‘Round Midnight,” Hancock again cited Bud Powell.
Now, years after mainstream audiences have drifted to countless others whose very vocabulary can be traced to Powell, the record companies have made another go at selling Bud Powell.
And these releases, in some cases wobbly and thin in their pre-stereo and pre-digital technologies, contain some of the most rigorously conceived and executed jazz music ever recorded. This is particularly true in the 1949 Clef sessions included in the Verve set, in which drummer Max Roach and bassist Ray Brown gird Powell through enormous, sustained attacks that, for better and worse, crowd this listener with humanity, pain, and delight. It’s no doubt a filial sense of crowding that leads horn players who look at Powell transcriptions to wonder: Where would I breathe?
The arc of Powell’s development is plain through both the Verve and Blue Note issues, with Verve being largely in the trio formats and Blue Note including bracing quintet sessions with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins.
For those wishing the more obsessive and archival of the treatments, seek out the five-disc Verve set. It is packed with smart and touching interviews with Powell colleagues and features a rewarding musicological annotation by pianists Barry Harris and Michael Weiss, whose pointed banter was taped while listening to each track.
The four-disc Blue Note release is more to the point, a Prado instead of a Louvre, with a handsome booklet featuring an Alfred Lion interview and an insightful introduction to Powell and his music.
In either case, there is something both beautiful and haunting in hearing Bud Powell go from his stratospheric achievement of “Tempus Fugue-It” in 1949 or three evolving takes of “Un Poco Loco” in 1951 to the more muted and at times anarchic treatments of “Mediocre” in 1955.
In so many ways these are map fragments to a great artist’s consciousness, both troubled and inspired, thwarted and free. And they are dignified evidence of an American imagination so large but brief that it nearly got by without its full due.*