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Bud Powell: Troubled Bebop Genius



Earl Rudolph "Bud" Powell, jazz pianist, composer and arranger, was born in Harlem on

September 27, 1924. Powell was a seminal figure in the development of bebop modern jazz.

His greatest influence on the piano was Art Tatum, although Thelonious Monk was a close friend. In the early 1940s, as a teenager, Powell listened to the musically adventurous performances of Monk and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at the Uptown House, an after-hours venue near where he lived. Parker first played a solo act at the club when briefly living in New York. Here, the first stirrings of bebop were heard nightly.

Bebop is a style of jazz developed in the U.S. in the early to mid-1940s, which features songs characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes, numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure, the use of scales and occasional references to the melody. This style ultimately became synonymous with modern jazz, when both categories reached final maturity in the 1960s.

Bebop developed as the younger generation of jazz musicians aimed to counter the popular, dance-oriented swing style with a new “non-danceable” kind of "musician's music," which demanded close listening. As bebop was not dance music, it enabled the musicians to play at faster tempos and explore advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, extended chords, chord substitutions, asymmetrical phrasing and intricate melodies.

Bebop groups used rhythm sections in a way that expanded their role, whereas the key ensemble of the Swing Era was the huge Big Band, often supplemented by a string section and playing heavily arranged tunes. The classic bebop group was the small combo that consisted of alto or tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, double bass and drums. Rather than play heavily arranged music, bop musicians typically played the melody of a song, called the "head," with the accompaniment of the rhythm section, followed by a section in which all of the performers improvised solos, eventually returning to the melody at the end of the song.

By 1942, when Powell started to play in the band of his legal guardian, trumpeter

Charles Melvin "Cootie" Williams, he had already developed his individual style in most of its essentials. His tenure with Williams was terminated one night in Philadelphia in January 1945 when he became separated from the other band members that had left the bandstand at the end of the evening.

Powell was apprehended by the private railroad police for public drunkenness, while wandering around Broad Street Station. He was beaten and incarcerated by the police. Ten days after his release, he had persistent headaches and was hospitalized, first in Bellevue, an observation ward, and then in a state psychiatric hospital 60 miles away. He stayed there for more than two months.

Earlier in 1942, Monk, as the elder pianist-composer, had introduced Powell to the inner circle of those later to be called “bebop musicians” who were forming at the venue known as Minton's Playhouse. Monk was resident there and he presented Powell as his protégé. Their mutual affection grew and Monk became Powell's greatest mentor, though some argue that Powell owed more stylistically to Art Tatum.


Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill at Minton's Playhouse in New York, 1947

Minton’s original owner, Henry Minton, was well known in Harlem for being the first-ever black delegate to the American Federation of Musicians Local 802. In addition, he had been manager of the Rhythm Club in the early 1930s, a place frequented by jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Earl Hines. Novelist and social commentator Ralph Ellison later wrote that because of his union background and music business experience, Minton was uniquely aware of the economic and artistic needs of jazz musicians in New York during that decade. Minton's popularity and his penchant for generosity with food and loans made his club a favorite hangout for musicians

Minton started a policy of holding regular jam sessions at his club, which would later prove to be a key factor in the development of bebop. Because of his union ties, Minton was able to ensure that musicians would not be fined for their participation in jam sessions, an activity that was prohibited by the union. Dizzy Gillespie recalled that there were walking delegates from the union that would follow musicians around and fine them hundreds of dollars for participating in jam sessions, but that they were "somewhat immune from this at Minton's because of Henry Minton." Ellison notes that Minton's Playhouse provided "a retreat, a homogeneous community where a collectivity of common experience could find continuity and meaningful expression."

For his part, Powell eagerly experimented with Monk's latest ideas on the piano. Monk's composition "In Walked Bud" is an enduring tribute to their time together in Harlem, and is based on the chord progression of an earlier standard "Blue Skies" (Berlin). Many biographies of Powell have cited "In Walked Bud" as Monk's gratitude for Powell's actions in his defense during a police raid of the Savoy Ballroom in 1945. According to a Monk biographer, Thomas Fitterling, the police raided the venue and singled out Monk, who refused to show his identification and was arrested. Powell, a young fan of Monk's, attempted to prevent the police from entering by holding the door and yelling at them to stop and exclaiming that they were “mistreating the greatest pianist in the world!"

According to this account, Powell was struck in the head by a police officer with a nightstick, suffering an injury that led to a pattern of institutionalizations and destructive behavior that plagued him the rest of his career. Other sources have explained Powell's injury differently: Miles Davis said Powell was beaten by a Savoy Ballroom bouncer after walking into the club without any money, while Dexter Gordon claimed Powell was beaten while in police custody after his arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct in a Philadelphia train station.

Whatever the cause of his injury, that year Powell suffered the first of many nervous collapses, which were to confine him to sanatoriums for much of his adult life. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he appeared intermittently in New York clubs with leading bop musicians or in his own trio. From the mid-1950s, as his mental health and musical powers deteriorated, he gradually restricted his public appearances.


Bud Powell, Clark Terry, Barney Wilen, Pierre Michelot, Kenny Clarke - Paris 1959

In 1959 he moved to Paris where he led a trio (1959-62) with drummer Kenny Clarke and French-born double bassist Pierre Michelot. There, he enjoyed a certain celebrity status and some financial success. After returning to America in August 1964, he made a disastrous appearance at Carnegie Hall and soon was obliged to abandon music altogether.

Dr. Billy Taylor, the host of NPR's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, has said that Powell was “the most important pianist in the early bop style” and his innovations “transformed the jazz pianism of his time.”

A prodigious technician, he was able at will to reproduce the demanding styles of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, echoes of which can sometimes be heard in his ballad performances. At fast and medium tempos, however, he preferred the spare manner that he devised in the early 1940s—rapid melodic lines in the right hand punctuated by irregularly spaced, dissonant chords in the left.

This almost “anti-pianistic” style, which was adopted by most bop pianists of the time, left him free to pursue linear melody in the manner of bop wind

players. It was as a melodist that Powell stood apart from his many imitators. At its best, Powell's playing was sustained by a free unfolding of rapid and unpredictable melodic invention to which he brought a brittle, precise touch and creative intensity. Except in his later years, when his virtuosity flagged and he self-consciously adopted a primitivism resembling Monk's, Powell never altered this basic approach, but worked ceaselessly within it to devise new melodic ideas, harmonies and ways of coupling the hands.

He greatly extended the range of jazz harmony by reducing his chordal underpinnings to compounds of 2nds and 7ths and achieved an extraordinary variety in his phrase lengths, which range from brief flurries to seemingly inexhaustible lines that “ignore the structure of the original.”

While the true origins of bebop remain a disputed topic, even among jazz historians, some maintain that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and bassist Oscar Pettiford were the progenitors. Searching up and down Midtown Manhattan on 52nd Street for work in late 1943, by January 1944 they had been booked by the Onyx Club. Their group, which also included drummer Max Roach, pianist George Wallington, and later the tenor saxophonist Don Byas, is considered by many to be the first commercially viable bebop quintet. Gillespie called their engagement "the birth of the bebop era," and the sounds of bebop could be heard up and down 52nd Street for the next few years.

But musical origins are often complex and frequently open to dispute. Many other jazz scholars recognize and accept the role of the informal collective of musicians who performed with Powell at Minton's Playhouse, experimenting with bebop during informal late-night jam sessions as being the real incubator for the very true bebop ensembles, including Gillespie's.

Although most are at ease in a trio setting, Powell was stimulated, doing some of his best work while in direct competition with other leading bop soloists like Parker, Gillespie, trombonist J.J. Johnson, saxophonist Sonny Stitt and trumpet player Theodore “Fats” Navarro.


Powell also composed a number of well-known jazz tunes, among them “Hallucinations,” subsequently recorded by Miles Davis as “Budo,” “Tempus Fugue-it” and “Bouncing with Bud,” as well as the remarkable “The Glass Enclosure,” a musical impression of his experiences in mental asylums and my personal favorite, “Dance of the Infidels.”

Although jazz historians may debate whether bebop was a revolutionary or an evolutionary development of style, agreement exists on its core qualities: most prominently, bebop consists of an enriched melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary that required astute musicianship and a “virtuosic bravado.”

Bebop’s most significant contribution to the jazz tradition was in the area of improvisation, both in soloing and accompanying. Improvised bebop solos shared the melodic and rhythmic character of many bop themes, including the frequent use of asymmetrical phrase structures, a harmonic vocabulary that employed ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths and chromatic melodic lines that often stressed the weak beats of the measure.

Drummer Kenny Clarke once commented, “Bebop’ was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labeled the music. It was just modern music, we would call it. We wouldn't call it anything, really––just music." Just really good music.

Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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