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JAZZ APPRECIATION: The Amazing BUD Powell (Master of the Modern Jazz Piano)

Aug 11, 2017, 11:59 AM | Article By: Mahtarr E. Njai

We continue to write about jazz because of a strong passion for the creative arts and music in particular. We also believe that the history of the African- American’s contribution to American culture should be made known for posterity. Jazz as we know it, is an American product and the only original export of America to the outside world. We chose jazz as our subject matter because it is all encompassing and played a significant part in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in America. Its roots are imbedded in the blues and the slave songs of Congo Square, now called - Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans and it has branches spreading across continents and oceans.

The story of the piano and its relation to jazz music goes back to the early beginnings of the music, and the history of jazz piano in particular mirrors the evolution of the music as a whole. We have seen how the piano took its place in Harlem during the renaissance with the advent of stride piano players such as Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum, and the influence left behind by their style, but by the mid-1940’s, a distinctly modern jazz piano style had developed in response to the demands of bebop and its emphasis on innovation.

The harmonic/rhythmic underpinnings of the music epitomized in the work of jazz pianists, and the evolution of the monophonic improvisation, best exemplified in the play of the horns, started a new era in which modern jazz pianists looked for a sparser, more streamlined approach to playing the new jazz.

The piano by itself is only one instrument, but the nature of jazz performance requires group interaction of the highest level. The irony of jazz music is that, for all its celebration of individual musicianship with emphasis on solo demonstrations, it remains the music of ensembles. There are no “lone rangers” in the jazz pantheon, for in the world of jazz, there is almost always the company of a band.

The coming of bebop with its unique rhythm section brought with it the emergence of the modern jazz pianist. The orchestral approach to the keyboard style of Tatum and Ellington was too thick and too textured for bebop pianists whose styles were closer in feeling to Count Basie than to the more proficient and technical style of the stride and swing era piano players. It should be noted however, that the influence of the stride tradition could not be completely shaken off, as Tatum’s mastery of the keyboard would continue to haunt later players. Among the modern jazz players of this new style, was a guy called Earl “Bud” Powell. No one came close to representing the spirit of the bebop movement than Powell and none would be more influential.

He was born in New York City on September 27th 1924 in a musical family. His early training on the piano concentrated on the European classical tradition, but even before he was ten years old, he was already drawn to the music of Fats Waller and Art Tatum. By the age of fifteen he was busy working as a professional musician often frequenting the after hour clubs of Harlem.

It was in these settings where he would meet a friend and mentor- Thelonius Monk, and got introduced to the nascent sounds of bebop. His relationship with Monk became very close and they were very supportive of each other as musicians. His first major gig was with Cottie Williams’s band and one of the first things he did, was to convince Williams to record Monk’s composition “Round Midnight”.

In 1944, Powell recorded with Williams in both a big band setting and also in a combo. Although he was now well immersed in modern jazz, his music was still tempered by the conventions of the swing era. He also had a troubled life and was said to be possessed by demons. It would surface later that both he and Monk were mentally unbalanced, Powell spent a lot of his brief career in mental institutions of one kind or another, and Monk’s reticence finally reached a pathological extreme. During his time with Williams, Powell was arrested in Philadelphia for disorderly conduct, and while in custody, he was severely beaten by police which left him in a precarious health condition and triggered achronic psychological instability.

He was never the same guy after the Philadelphia incident and spent some time in a sanatorium. Other periods of institutionalization would follow with treatments of electroshock therapy and beatings culminating in a permanent state of mental instability. His life became one of part time patient and full time jazz legend. His recordings made after this ordeal with electroshock therapy, include some of the most compelling piano trio music in the history of jazz. In 1949 Powell working with Max Roach and Ray Brown, produced three up-tempo masterpieces- “Tempus Fugit” ,”Cherokee” and “All God’s Chillum Got Rhythm”.  In 1950, he replaced Roach with virtuoso drummer Buddy Rich and produced a thrilling version of “Tea for Two”.

Powell was equally impressive when playing his own compositions and it is hard to understand why so few of his music have been recorded by other musicians. His greatest limitation was as a performer of ballads, but he was not alone in this area, as a whole generation of jazz pianist was also deficient in this area. It was not until in the late 50’s when modern jazz pianists refined an original and authentic approach to ballad playing. Powell had a taste of this new trend when he released the song “Parisian Thoroughfare”, but for the most part he remained under the shadow of Art Tatum when playing slower tempos.

It should be noted here that, Powell’s most important recordings were all completed by the time he was thirty. His work with Norman Granz in the 40’s and 50’s, particularly the period between May 1949 and May 1951, cemented his reputation as the leading keyboard voice of the bebop movement. It was during this period that he completed seminal sessions with Max Roach and Buddy Rich. He also did a memorable piano solo in 1951, but the quality of his later work is incomparable to his early efforts.

His early work had been distinguished by suppleness and gripping tension, while in the later years, his work seems clouded by malaise. His touch was unsure, the tempo wobbly and his improvisations rarely breaking new ground. He left the states briefly and travelled to France in search of a fresh start, but this did little to improve his diminish capacity. He returned to New York and managed a few gigs, but his health continued to deteriorate, and in July 1966, he died of tuberculosis, alcoholism and malnutrition at the age of forty one.