Born Earl Randolph Powell, September 27, 1924, in New York, NY; died of tuberculosis, July 31 (one source says August 1), 1966, in Brooklyn, NY; son of a pianist; married Audrey Hill, 1953 (divorced); married Altevia Edwards ("Buttercup"), c. 1955 (marriage dissolved); children: (with Mary Frances Barnes) Celia, (with Edwards) John.
Although pianist Bud Powell succumbed in 1966 at the age of only 41 to the illnesses that had been haunting him for years, he managed to change the face of jazz music. Powell was one of the few musicians--including, among others, saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and fellow pianist Thelonious Monk--to revolutionize jazz during the 1940s by inventing bebop, a modern sound that broke out of the confines of swing and established the musicians as not only entertainers, but artists as well. To commemorate Powell's achievements and the seventieth anniversary of his birth in 1994, the Blue Note and Verve record labels released comprehensive compact disc boxed sets of his work: Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings and The Complete Bud Powell on Verve.
Powell struggled to create his music in the midst of such personal demons as alcoholism, mental illness, and tuberculosis, as well as a largely unappreciative U.S. audience. He suffered a debilitating beating by police in 1945 in Philadelphia, which set off his subsequent lifelong health problems. Still, Powell--whose turbulent life was later used, along with that of saxophonist Lester Young, as a model for the character Dale Turner in the 1986 film Round Midnight--led his own bands, played for five years in exile in Paris, and pioneered a new style. One of his successors, pianist Herbie Hancock, noted Powell's lasting significance in Down Beat: "He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano; every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him."
Earl Randolph Powell was born on September 27, 1924, in New York City. The son of a man talented as a stride pianist, he began learning classical music as a child from his father. Powell left school at age 15 to devote himself professionally to his own piano playing and first appeared onstage as a teen in spots around Harlem and Coney Island, Brooklyn. Thelonious Monk, also not yet famous, tutored Powell at Harlem's Minton's Playhouse, where Powell became a regular feature and launched his career.
In the 1940s, Powell established himself as one of the leading figures of bebop. He began the decade, from 1942 to 1944, touring and recording with trumpeter Cootie Williams's orchestra. In 1946, he recorded with Dexter Gordon, on Long Tall Dexter, and contributed to two cuts, "Cheryl" and "Buzzy," on Charlie Parker's Savoy sessions. Three years later, Powell found himself invited by the young Blue Note label to lead a group, Bud Powell and His Modernists, to produce albums for the label. Backed by drummer Max Roach and bassist Curley Russell, Powell recorded the five-volume Amazing Bud Powell.
If Powell made his name in the jazz community during the 1940s, he also suffered a pivotal crisis. James T. Jones IV of USA Today described the incident: "In 1945, a 21- year-old Powell received a Rodney King-like cop beating after he tried to help his pal and mentor, Monk, who was being harassed by police." Most of 1945 passed with Powell recovering in the hospital from his severe head injury. From then on, the musician found himself shadowed by excruciating headaches, seizures, and generally erratic behavior that led him in and out of sanitariums, where, according to Time and New York Newsday, he experienced electroshock therapy and was once sprayed with water mixed with ammonia. He also developed a drinking problem, worsening later physical ailments.
Meanwhile, Powell and other modern jazz musicians were receiving an ambivalent response from American audiences. Many young white artists, intellectuals, and bohemians embraced bebop; in fact, they adopted the music as the theme of their "Beat generation" in the 1950s. Black youth, however, largely overlooked the modern jazz revolution in the 1940s and turned toward other forms, such as rock and doo-wop. In a reaction parallel to that of the bebop musicians themselves, these potential listeners rebelled against an earlier generation of jazz musicians--Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, for instance-- whom they believed represented "the old style of comic darky with rolling eyes and flamboyant manner," according to James Lincoln Collier in Jazz: The American Theme Song. Black listeners would return to the genre in the mid- to late 1950s, when jazz musicians put forth a more consciously African American-centered, bluesy, and "hot," or "hard," sound.
Despite his crisis in 1945, Powell would become a leading jazz pianist in the decade following World War II. His trio, the Modernists, anticipated in their own 1949 sessions the hard bop style that would emerge later in the fifties. The records Bud's Bubble (also called Crazeology) and Indiana from those sessions showcase Powell's own combination of right-hand melodies over complex and unpredictable left-hand harmonies. Un Poco Loco, Night in Tunisia, and Parisian Thoroughfare also shine brightly. "Frequently the face of his music is like a lie constructed out of bebop acrobatics, convoluted triplets, and finger-buckling scales attacked from as many angles as a Schoenbergian row," wrote Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins.
Powell was one of the descendants of ragtime piano. Ragtime evolved from the Creole clarinet style and found its place in a number of schools across the country, including the New Orleans school, represented by the legendary Jelly Roll Morton; the "Pittsburgh circle," starring Mary Lou Williams and modernist Errol Garner; and the "Eastern," or "Harlem," group, which included James P. Johnson and Fats Waller and from which emerged modernists Powell and Monk. "On the one hand,... players attempted the feat of adapting the piano to the vocalizing style of the other instruments (the so-called 'trumpet style');... [on] the other hand, players exploited the capacity of the piano for a combination of technical brilliance and original harmonic experiments, which led logically to the modern pianists' styles," commented jazz historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Jazz Scene.
Powell's Modernists brought in a number of star jazz players for their 1949 sessions. Trumpeter Fats Navarro, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Roy Haynes, for example, came together for the recordings Bouncing with Bud and Dance of the Infidels. Although Powell spent much of the years from 1951 to 1953 in a hospital, by 1953 he was once again playing and recording. A highlight from Powell's career was a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, Ontario, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus, recorded as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.
Toward the late 1950s, Powell began growing abusive and hostile toward his fellow musicians, and his relationships worsened. After another brief hospitalization in 1959, he moved to Paris to a glorious reception from the European jazz community. After three years playing there with American drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Pierre Michelot, however, Powell again fell ill. The pianist's new wife, Altevia Edwards, nicknamed "Buttercup," and his friends in Paris, particularly the young graphic artist Francis Paudras, took care of him, but his health problems worsened. Powell contracted tuberculosis in 1963, his marriage broke up, and he again required treatment in a hospital. Homesick for New York, where many leading bop musicians performed a benefit concert at Birdland to help pay his medical expenses, Powell returned in 1964.
In his playing during his later years Powell still achieved a high level of artistry. Released almost a decade after his death, Bud in Paris demonstrates his changing moods. More than a ballad, "Autumn in New York" is a "minor epic," according to Gary Giddins in the Village Voice. In contrast, "Crossing the Channel" presents what Giddins called "the urgent storytelling of a most idiosyncratic and argumentative artist." The reviewer had only praise for the musician's later sessions: "On those occasions, he made clear once again that he was ... a volatile and original voice with an unmistakable urgency and diction of his own." Powell's playing reflected his physical condition. Although he had flashes of brilliance, he also floundered, barely keeping up with the melody. He died on July 31, 1966, soon after his return to New York.
The broad range of Powell's musical opus was made available in 1994 on two archival compact disc sets from Powell's two main labels, Blue Note and Verve. Los Angeles Times writer Leonard Reed reviewed the accomplishment presented on these collections, Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings and The Complete Bud Powell on Verve: "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 ever recorded." The promotion and distribution of the CDs marked Powell's increased recognition from diverse audiences beyond jazz musicians and from devotees in the United States in the 1990s as well.
by Nicholas Patti
Bud Powell's Career
First appeared onstage as teen in Harlem, NY, 1939; played with Thelonious Monk at Harlem's Minton's Playhouse, early 1940s; toured U.S. and recorded with Cootie Williams's orchestra, 1942-44; recorded with Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker, mid-1940s; led trio Bud Powell and His Modernists, 1949-51; appeared regularly at Birdland in New York City; played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, and Fats Navarro in clubs and concert halls in New York City and Toronto, Canada, and on tour, late 1940s-1950s; played and recorded with Kenny Clarke, Pierre Michelot, and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, Paris, France, 1959-64.
- Selective Works
- (With Dexter Gordon) Long Tall Dexter, Savoy, 1946.
- (With Charlie Parker) Bird/The Savoy Recordings (includes "Cheryl" and "Buzzy") Savoy, 1946.
- Bud's Bubble (Crazeology), Roost, 1947.
- Indiana, Roost, 1947.
- Bouncing with Bud, Blue Note, 1949.
- Dance of the Infidels, Blue Note, 1949.
- Tempus Fugue-it, Clef, 1949.
- All God's Chillun Got Rhythm, Clef, 1949.
- Hallucinations, Clef, 1950.
- Un Poco Loco, Blue Note, 1951.
- Night in Tunisia, Blue Note, 1951.
- Parisian Thoroughfare, Blue Note, 1951.
- Tea for Two, Alto, 1953.
- Autumn in New York, Blue Note, 1953.
- The Glass Enclosure, Blue Note, 1953.
- Jazz at Massey Hall, Fantasy/OJC, 1953.
- The Bud Powell Trio: The Verve Sessions, Verve, 1955.
- (With Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen) Bouncing with Bud, Delmark, 1962.
- Bud in Paris, Xanadu, 1975.
- The Amazing Bud Powell, Volumes 1 & 2, (1949-53), Blue Note, 1989.
- The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 3, (1949-53), Blue Note, 1989.
- Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings, Blue Note, 1994.
- The Complete Bud Powell on Verve, Verve, 1994.
- The Genius of Bud Powell, Verve.
- The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever, Prestige.
- Collier, James Lincoln, Jazz: The American Theme Song, Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Groves, Alan, and Alyn Shipton, The Glass Enclosure: The Life of Bud Powell, Bayou Press, 1993.
- Hobsbawm, Eric, The Jazz Scene, Pantheon Books, 1993 (first edition published by MacGibbon and Kee, 1959).
- Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, Morrow, 1989.
- Periodicals Dayton Daily News (OH), November 13, 1994.
- Down Beat, September 8, 1966; September 22, 1966; October 20, 1966.
- Jazz Journal, October 1966.
- Jazz Journal International, June 1993.
- Keyboard, October 1989.
- Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1994.
- Melody Maker, August 13, 1966.
- New York Newsday, October 16, 1994.
- New York Times, August 2, 1966; October 12, 1986.
- Chicago Sun-Times , November 13, 1994.
- Time, October 31, 1994.
- USA Today, October 11, 1994.
- Village Voice, December 8, 1975.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Blue Note Records publicity materials.