Bud Powell Revisited

Sep 27, 2017

Today is Bud Powell's 93rd birthday anniversary. In this 21st century moment in which police brutality and shootings of African Americans have become matters of national outrage and discord ranging from the 'hood to the gridiron to a reactionary and divisive White House, it must be noted that Bud was a victim of a severe beating by Philadelphia police in 1945. 

The injuries he sustained as a 20-year-old were life-long, and either caused or exacerbated the mercurial range of highs and lows, brilliance and inconsistency that marked his sadly diminished life and career.

Nonetheless, while he's one of the most tragic figures in jazz, Powell remains one of its most revered as well. In 1979, 13 years after his death, Bill Evans said of him, “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.” Chick Corea, who acknowledges Bud as a primary influence, recorded an album called "Remembering Bud Powell" in 1997. He concludes his liner note essay for the Stretch Records release by saying, "Thanks to Bud Powell for the lasting impression he gives us through his music."

At the time of this writing, it's an unusually warm and humid September night, so you may be in the mood for something less white heat than what Powell’s playing typically brings to mind. In that case, be sure to take a look at these clips once the temperature drops. They're from a series of gigs filmed in Paris and Copenhagen between 1959 and ’62. By then, some of Bud’s creative fervor had subsided, but there’s plenty of beauty and proficiency in these performances filmed at the Blue Note and Club Saint-Germain in Paris and Café Montmartre in Copenhagen. 

The Saint-Germain set opens with Bud's trio featuring Kenny Clarke on drums and the Parisian bassist Pierre Michelot playing “Crossing the Channel” and “Blues in the Closet." Then trumpeter Clark Terry and the Nice-born tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen join them for “No Problem,” “Pie Eye,” “52nd Street Theme,” and “Miguel’s Party.”

At the Blue Note, Bud is seen with saxophonist Lucky Thompson, guitarist Jimmy Gourley, and drummer Kenny Clarke playing “Anthropology,” which fades after a brilliant exchange of fours between Thompson and Clarke. The footage is grainy and shot at oblique angles, but its rarity and excellence make it well worth the inconvenience.

Powell sat in with Charles Mingus's Quintet at Cannes in 1961. He plays a substantial opening solo on "I'll Remember April," the standard he first recorded for Roost in 1947 with Max Roach and Curley Russell. Bud's solo is followed by Eric Dolphy, who keeps the tune in view, and a stop-time exchange between the altoist and tenor great Booker Ervin. Johnny Coles is the trumpeter; Dannie Richmond's on drums.

This take on “Anthropology” is from a 1962 engagement at Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen. Bud's nicely supported by the 15-year-old bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Jorn Elniff at a venue that he reportedly enjoyed. (Further down the page you'll find Bud's 1953 recording of "Autumn in New York," which features the bassist George Duvivier. Pederson singled out Duvivier as a favorite, and the counter melody Duvivier plays on Vernon Duke's haunting ballad reminds me of the mature style that Pederson employed in his later work with Oscar Peterson and others.)  

It's poignant to see Bud smiling as he plays "'Round Midnight" at the Cafe Montmartre. Powell persuaded bandleader Cootie Williams to make the first recording of Thelonious Monk's iconic composition in 1943 when he was a member of the trumpeter's outfit. Bud was apparently intervening on behalf of Monk with the Philly police in '45; Monk later took the rap for Bud in a drug bust that resulted in the loss of his cabaret card, the license required of all performers in New York nightclubs. In other words, Bud and Monk paid heavy dues for looking out for each other.

The camera work at the Blue Note and Montmartre is especially valuable for the perspective it gives of Bud’s finger work at the keyboard. Pianist Lennie Tristano, who praised Powell without reservation, said that Bud taught him the importance of expressing feelings. In Eunmi Shim’s biography Lennie Tristano: His Life and Music, she quotes from an interview that Lennie gave his student Jon Easton: “I played opposite Bud a lot. It began to get into my own feeling and my own approach to the keyboard, which is to say that you not only transmit what you hear but what you feel at the most profound level. Which means, your fingers have to reproduce not only sounds but feelings.”

By 1946, Powell was hailed as the pianistic counterpart to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He was a  leader or sideman on several of the greatest sessions of the '40s, and no appreciation of modern jazz can be complete without recognition of Bud's Roost, Blue Note and Verve sessions between 1947-'51. But mental illness, alcohol abuse, electroshock and drug treatments hampered his career, and his life became increasingly chaotic and his playing more erratic throughout the ‘50s. When he wasn't confined by "glass enclosures" and hospital wards, his handlers sought to keep him under one form of protective custody or another, and away from the bottle. In 1959 he moved to France. His years abroad are perhaps the best-documented of his life, particularly through the writings of his devoted admirer and companion Francis Paudras, whose book Dance of the Infidels  served as the basis for the celebrated film, ‘Round Midnight, Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, it starred the expatriate Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner, a composite of Powell and Lester Young, that earned him an Oscar-nominated role.

Bud was interviewed in January 1963 at the Bouffemont Sanatorium in France, where he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. In answer to a question from his French-speaking interviewer, he begins by singing the melody of his composition, "In the Mood for a Classic," which he dedicates to the "people of France." (Hear Bud playing it in the frame above marked Home 1961 #7.) He names Al Haig as a "my idea of a perfect pianist," then when pressed to name favorites, says "I told you, Al Haig," and adds Billy Kyle and Hank Jones. I noted that some YouTube users wonder if he's saying "Bud Powell," when he's actually saying, "I always did like Billy Kyle." Kyle recorded minimally as a leader, but he was a prominent member of John Kirby's popular sextet on 52nd Street in the 1930s and '40s, and later toured as a member of Louis Armstrong's All-Stars. In discussing his admiration for Art Tatum, he suggests a feeling of mutual respect that they had for each other. "Art Tatum used to take me out for a drive in his big Lincoln, he had a sky-blue Lincoln...I been in his car."

Bud coughs out the name "Thelonious Monk...one of my favorites from a long time ago...We used to hang out all day and all night at after-hours joints." He names Johnny Griffin as his favorite tenor, and Miles Davis on trumpet. Griff was captured on tape with Bud at various locations in Paris around this time. Based on the interlocutor's statement, he apparently named Sonny Rollins too; Rollins was a 19-year-old when he recorded with Bud and Fats Navarro in 1949. Roy Haynes was the drummer on that date, and he was on Chick Corea's Bud tribute in '97. Bud goes on to name Max Roach, Tommy Potter, and Charles Mingus, and singles out Toshiko Akiyoshi as "very good...a technical pianist." He also acknowledges Bill Evans, but notes that he hadn't seen him in person. He concludes with an optimistic note about his health; alas, Powell returned to his native New York City in 1964, and died from TB two years later at the age of 41.