Weekend Chops Builder: Piano Giants of Jazz — Bud Powell

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[This lesson is from the May 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

Earl "Bud" Powell, like Charlie Parker a seminal figure in the development of bebop (and, also like Bird, a great artist who died tragically young), was by far the most influential jazz pianist of the 1940s. His treatment in many of the history books has suffered because of the concentration on Thelonious Monk, whose importance as a composer and overall influence i indisputable, but whose pianistic abilities are debatable.

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Born September 27, 1924, in New York City, Bud left school at fifteen, played gigs around Coney Island, and worked at the Harlem club known as Canada Lee's Chicken Coop. At sixteen he worked with Valaida Snow and her Sunset Royals. Between 1940 and 1942 he was a frequent visitor to The Playhouse (better known as Minton's) during its years as an incubator of such revolutionary talents as Charlie Christian, Parker, Gillespie, and Monk. It was soon afterward that his style began to evolve into the horn-like conception of jazz piano, marked by sharply articulated single-note right-hand lines and jagged, syncopated punctuations in the left, that was eventually identified as bebop or bop. Some evidence of this was revealed in his first recordings, made when he was a member of trumpeter Cootie Williams' orchestra in 1943-44. These tracks were reissued a couple of years ago on Phoenix Records [1006 17th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212], LP-1.

After leaving Williams, Bud worked with a variety of small groups, mostly along 52nd Street. Among them were those of John Kirby, Dizzy Gillespie, Allen Eager, Sid Catlett, and Don Byas. By this time, though, Powell's emotional health was clearly unstable. A troubled man, seemingly unable to adjust to life, he was in and out of hospitals for much of the next decade.

One famous incident involved Art Tatum, who met Bud at Birdland and dismissed him as a "one-handed piano player." The following night Bud entered the club, looked meaningfully at Tatum, and played "Sometimes I'm Happy" at a racehorse tempo entirely with his left hand. Tatum granted that he had been wrong; Powell, having won the respect of the man he had always admired, went home that night in ecstasy.

In 1959 friends persuaded him to stay in Paris, where he was removed from the debilitating influences that had surrounded him in New York. He formed a trio and I heard him in the summer of that year at a club called Le Chat Qui Peche, playing a piano that was horribly out of tune, yet making it sound magnificent. In 1962 he was stricken with tuberculosis. It was almost two years before he returned to work in Paris. In August of 1964 he came home to New York for what was supposed to be a brief visit. After working for a short time at Birdland he vanished from view. Friends eventually found him and tried to take care of him during the next few months, but he remained almost entirely inactive, mentally and physically a broken man. He died July 31, 1966, in a Brooklyn hospital.

It is essential to be very selective in listening to Powell's records, since his later work was flawed by technical insecurity. By far the best albums, still available, are to be found in the series on Blue Note called The Amazing Bud Powell (Blue Note, 81503, 81504, 81571, 81598 and 84009). Although most of his work was thematically blues or simple 32-bar melodies, there were some important exceptions. "Un Poco Loco" with its sadly apt title, is an original work, three different takes of which are presented on 81503. "Glass Enclosure" on 81504, ranks among Powell's greatest works both as a composer and as a performer, combining the concepts he had picked up in the bebop days with a harmonic imagination and a personal articulation worthy of a Tatum.

Another of Powell's well-known original works is "Hallucinations" (the tune is also known as "Budo"), available on The Genius Of Bud Powell [Verve, 2-2506], a passage from which is shown here. Although the tempo is bright, there are two chord changes per measure (i.e., two per second) almost continually. And although Powell was capable of improvisations far more complex in character, these sixteen measures typify the revolution he brought about in jazz piano, since the concept is entirely linear in the right hand, while the left is employed simply for punctuations, most often directly on (or half a beat before) the first and third beats. It is interesting to note also that although this song was played without bass and drums, Powell's left hand throughout seems to be doing exactly what it would have done had a rhythm section been present.

Despite the fact that many promising pianists came up around the same time and evolved into boppers, there is no question of Bud Powell's status as the first and foremost pianist to demonstrate this genre in its finest hours.

As I wrote in The Encyclopedia Of Jazz: "Charged with a fantastic dynamic energy allied with an incredibly fast flow of original ideas, he produced a series of solo albums that made him the idol of almost every young pianist. Technically, he showed a control and mastery of the keyboard, and a tonal individuality in his attack, that no other pianist quite succeeded in duplicating. Powell counted Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and other jazz veterans among his most ecstatic admirers."

He also counted this writer, and I find it remarkable that so little is written or said today about this artist, whose contribution to the history of jazz piano is, fortunately, a matter of record.

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