Bud Powell: Bebop Pianism

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Bud Powell was the first, and arguably the greatest pianist to create a bebop-based improvisational style for the piano. i i

Bud Powell was the first, and arguably the greatest pianist to create a bebop-based improvisational style for the piano. Metronome/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Metronome/Getty Images
Bud Powell was the first, and arguably the greatest pianist to create a bebop-based improvisational style for the piano.

Bud Powell was the first, and arguably the greatest pianist to create a bebop-based improvisational style for the piano.

Metronome/Getty Images

Pianist Bud Powell was admired by his contemporaries as an adventurous original with a style marked by unrivaled virtuosity. Today, he is remembered for redrawing the course of modern jazz piano by pioneering bebop improvisation at the keyboard. Though personal misfortune interrupted his career, and shortened his life, at his peak Powell exuded an emotion and power that captivated audiences and musicians alike.

Born in New York City in 1924, Earl "Bud" Powell began piano lessons at age five. By age 10, Bud was imitating legendary pianists like Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Powell considered Tatum his greatest influence, and the only jazz pianist who surpassed him technically. Thelonious Monk was another primary influence; he became Bud's friend and mentor, nurturing Powell's blossoming talent.

By 1941, Powell was playing on the Harlem club circuit, and when he was invited to tour with Duke Ellington's former trumpeter, Cootie Williams, Powell hit the road with Williams' band.

But in 1945, Powell was involved in a confrontation that dramatically altered his life and career. Only 20 years old, the pianist was brutally beaten by police while on tour in Philadelphia. Though he was allegedly drunk and disorderly, many accounts of the incident describe the reaction of the police as far beyond what the charge warranted. Powell was left incoherent and in great pain; when his condition didn't improve, he went from hospital to hospital and was eventually institutionalized.

Despite his mental instability, Powell was still able to play the piano. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, then a teenager, was a huge fan and began watching over Powell, who was having problems with his drinking and developed a habit of wandering aimlessly. At the keyboard, however, Powell needed no help. Bud was one of the few musicians who could challenge Charlie Parker musically, and became the pianist of choice for tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, vocalist Sarah Vaughan and other luminaries.

Tragedy struck again when Powell was hit on the head with a bottle in a bar fight. His psychiatric record led to another 11 months in a mental institution, where he underwent treatments of electro-convulsive therapy — at that time a new technique just being developed. As McLean recalls, "He was so messed up when he came out ... I think they experimented on Bud."

Still, when Powell was released, his career picked up right where it left off. In the late '40s and early '50s, Powell was recognized as an accomplished leader and prolific composer, and he recorded many of his most famous tunes, including "Un Poco Loco," "Celia," "Hallucinations," "Tempus Fugit," and "Wail."

But the period also saw more personal trouble. In 1951, Powell was arrested along with Monk for drug possession. Charges against Powell were dropped, but he was sent to a psychiatric hospital for more than a year. Afterward, his abilities at the piano were never the same.

His playing in the 1950s was inconsistent — sometimes great, often poor. Powell was also under the eye of a woman named Altevia "Buttercup" Edwards, who claimed to be his wife. Because of his mental instability, he required supervision, but unique compositions like "Glass Enclosure" suggest that Bud chafed at his limited freedom.

Buttercup moved Powell to Paris, where an adoring French public lavished praise on the pianist. Though he enjoyed his five years in France, he was still unhappy with his restrictive personal circumstances. Eventually Francis Paudras, a French fan, along with saxophonist Johnny Griffin, pulled Powell away from Buttercup. After recovering from a bout of illness, Powell began to write music again, including "In the Mood for a Classic," which he dedicated to the French people.

Paudras organized Bud's triumphant return to New York, a six-week engagement at Powell's old haunt, Birdland. His first night was widely acclaimed in the press, and his daughter Celia and her mother Mary Francis Funderburk were among the electrified opening night audience.

But Powell's erratic side later re-emerged, and the extended engagement was cut short. Bud's self-destructive tendencies also returned, most notably alcohol dependency. After the Birdland engagement, he gave only two public performances, the last on May 1, 1965. Powell died on July 1, 1966, of cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 41.

As drummer Roy Haynes notes, had Powell lived longer and seen better treatment, "There's no telling what he would have developed into." Yet despite his personal tragedies and premature death, Bud's remarkable musical contributions remain immeasurable. Few musicians overcame more adversity to share a musical gift — and even fewer left a larger impact on their profession.

Click here to view the playlist.

Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:

Bud Powell: 'The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2'

Charlie Parker: 'Jazz at Massey Hall'

Dexter Gordon: 'Settin' the Pace'

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