Bud's Birthday

Earl "Bud" Powell is 87 today.

There are four new DTM pages, my "Bud Powell Anthology":

1) Burning Down the House

2) High Bebop

3) The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of

4) Crossing the Channel

---

A quintet with Greg Osby, Tim Hagans, Lonnie Plaxico, Joey Baron and me will be playing the music of Bud Powell tonight through Saturday at Birdland.

---

If you ask around about who to talk Bud Powell with, the name Peter Pullman immediately comes up.  Pullman is just about to release a major biography of the pianist.

He's got a new website and a new blog.  The chronology is especially recommended.  I can hardly wait to read the book. 

Thanks to Peter Pullman contributing the following to DTM (also x-posted at the conclusion of "Anthology":

HOW I CAME TO WRITE WAIL: THE LIFE OF BUD POWELL

I was working in Verve Records' reissue department when, in 1994, the opportunity arose for the label to assemble all of its Bud Powell recordings (including all alternative and breakdown takes), for a CD box-set presentation. Michael Lang, who headed the department, was receptive to my offer, to interview musicians and help to put together photos and other graphics for a lengthy, accompanying booklet to the five CDs. He insisted that the booklet have a biographical essay, too, and that I write it.

The set was nominated for a Grammy, in the Best Liner Notes category. I went to the awards ceremony, where I met a number of musicians, including Horace Silver, who'd written an essay for the set. (The Powell lost in its category to a Louis Armstrong-reissue project.)

I also met, at the ceremony, Celia Powell, Bud's daughter, who warned me about trying to get at the truth about her father. She said that his life story had many question marks, and that if I were to try to answer them I would follow many false leads and meet with a lot of dead ends.

That challenge I sought to undertake, from about 1996: to see if I could get past those dead ends. The first thing to do was to get informed about Powell's beginnings in Harlem. Celia had advised me to set his early years against the backdrop of the Harlem renaissance, as he was raised in an environment in which lived and worked not only so many great musicians and composers but, as well, painters, poets, and others who aspired to greatness. I undertook learning an informal history of Sugar Hill, the Harlem neighborhood that Powell spent most of his upbringing in. I visited the grounds of the church and schools that he attended, and got access to their transcripts. I educated myself about the many local venues in which musicians hung out in that era -- the speakeasies and after-hours places as well as the once-established clubs and ballrooms. I even read fiction (e.g., Claude McKay and Rudolf Fisher) of the era, to get a picture of what, for instance, rent parties were like.

I widened my inquiry, in my desire to understand Powell's beginnings, to those Harlemites who'd known him even casually, as a kid in the neighborhood. (Remember, Bud Powell came from a small family, and one of his two brothers had died in 1956. His mother died in 1961 and, by the time that I began my quest to learn about his life, his father was dead. I learned as well that his other brother, who had decades earlier distanced himself from everyone connected to the Bud Powell story, died in 1995.)

At the same time, I began my investigation of the mental-health world of the Forties and Fifties, as I knew (inchoately; in some ways, inaccurately) that Powell had been incarcerated in various places for long stretches of time. I interviewed psychiatric nurses as well as MDs, and I began to build my case for access to the files that certain institutions had kept on him (I'd assumed, rightly as it turned out, that these files hadn't been destroyed). I successfully petitioned two hospitals to see what they had on him and, eventually, won a case in State Supreme Court. This allowed me to read a file on Powell that Office of Mental Health, based in Albany, New York, had kept sealed (hitherto in perpetuity).

* * * *

BUD POWELL came up in an era where his music, and that of his close colleagues, was first and foremost entertainment. (Which he delivered six nights a week, four or five times a night, in the clubs and, sometimes, for many hours afterward in informal settings.) That might sound hackneyed to say but, today, with all of the masters theses that are being produced, and the other art theory-laden expostulations that are making it to print and into video documentaries, it needs to be reiterated.  

So I never stopped looking for musicians to talk to, from all parts of his career, especially as most of them were getting on, so to speak, in years. I interviewed many who’d played or recorded with him, those whom I'd not gotten to for the box set. I talked with some who had known Powell only from having visited Birdland once or twice to hear him. Others whom I reached had only heard him in an informal performance, at someone's apartment.

The musicians whom I spoke to constantly surprised me by how diverse their reactions to particular recorded pieces of his were -- and how different their reactions were to seeing him live -- while all agree that his talent was unparalleled in his time. Fans' reactions, too, I quickly learned, were so variable; yet, they have been often simplified in print, where they appear at all, to a cliché (e.g., "Seeing Powell play was an unforgettable experience").

Powell, in the clubs, was a phenomenon that anyone who cared at all for jazz had to witness. (Maybe, in his time, fans had more visceral responses only to club performances of Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.) Part of this, of course, was the emotional content of Powell's playing. That and, as well -- what is unfortunate -- the knowledge that fans brought to the clubs, of what they'd heard about Powell's offstage dissipations and consequent cruel treatment by the police, courts, and hospitals.

So the biggest part of my narrative is Powell's public life in his prime years, as they played out in the nightclubs. I look at him repeatedly from the fans' as well as his sidemen's perspectives, capturing their reactions. None watched him casually; all hung on every note that he struck. The point in dwelling on his nightclub persona: It was where he was most alive; in some periods, where he spent the majority of his hours awake.

In pursuing the whole story of Powell's life I talked, as well, to those who had worked in the clubs that he played in and those who had produced his record dates (including one, Jack Hooke, whom no one had asked about the date that was done for Roost; the one with "Indiana" and "Bud's Bubble"). And I got to know the key critics, such as Ira Gitler, who had seen Powell play countless times. Ira was terrifically helpful. (Thanks here, as well, to all at Institute of Jazz Studies, especially the nonpareil of historians, Dan Morgenstern; to Brian Priestley, another distinguished historian and critic, and a dear friend; and to Michael Cuscuna of Blue Note and Mosaic, who has long encouraged me.)

This awakening, of the need to get as diverse a survey of fans' as well as musicians' and critics' responses to Powell, propelled me to start making trips to Europe. People there were even more eager to share their insights -- they included, of course, the pianists who'd been inspired by him -- and to reveal how much Powell the human being had touched their lives, beyond the notes that they'd heard him play. I came to understand that from the time that he'd attained celebrity status, Powell wasn't very visible in New York City (when he wasn't playing). He was, though, much more a public personality in Europe -- particularly once he'd moved there, in 1959. (Although the decision to move abroad was not an expression of his disgust with life in New York City but so that he could get hired; a Paris club offered him a job that, some months later, became a steady one and wound up being the longest continuous employment of his career.)

By 1999 I started writing the narrative of Powell's life but, I realized, there was more to learn about the Europe years. I kept going abroad, having already established a relationship with Powell's greatest fan, Francis Paudras (who had long since been a legend himself by the time that he invited me to stay at his country estate, in 1997). He gave me access at that time to his substantial Powell archive, and I got to learn much from our long, long evenings spent in conversation. He then died; in 1999, however, I visited the archive again, with the cooperation of his attorney.

I remain ambivalent about Paudras, as from the start I'd felt driven to befriend many other French, as well as Scandinavian and Italian, fans and friends of Powell's -- these relationships soon becoming a corrective to Paudras's version of the Bud Powell story. I even moved to France, in 2002, in part to tie up some loose ends to my interviews and other research but, as well, to finish the writing of the biography. I returned to live in New York City in 2004. It was a struggle, thereafter, to finish the narrative, to make the hard choices about what to believe -- Celia Powell's warning turning out to be too true -- and, then, how to tell the proverbial whole truth and nothing but. The final draft was finished in 2009 and, leaving a publisher whose dilatory editor had no desire to issue the work, I chose in 2010 to issue it as an e-book.

For an ongoing discussion of all things Bud Powell, you can visit my blog, at TheLifeofBudPowell.wordpress.com.

At my website, www.BudPowellBio.com (though it is officially titled www.WailTheLifeofBudPowell.com), there is a substantial excerpt from the work. There is, as well, an annotated chronology, for scholars and fans to browse. Also, I have put at it a number of photos of Powell that have never been made public before.

Complete information about ordering the e-book is also provided there.

Peter Pullman

09/27/2011

« previous | Main | next »