Intro to Book
Bud Powell had been featuring the standard song “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” in his sets for much of 1949, when he was active in the New York City nightclubs on Fifty-second Street. Bassist Curly Russell, a regular member of Powell’s trio then, recalled decades later:
We’d come in in the winter time. It’s cold outside. And we open up, the first set Bud would jump right down [andsay]: “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”. Racehorse temperature (sic). And he’d play that for twenty minutes. When he finished that, he’d go into “Cherokee”. He’d come in cold—no warmup, nothin—and your fingers are flyin . . . . It got so [that] when I finished the number, I’d have to peel my fingers off the bass. They would get cramped in that position [to] where they wouldn’t open. And he’d do that, he’d start playin, and [then] the time [would] be up and he wouldn’t want to come down. And the usual thing [was], we’d get up and walk off the stand; he’d keep on playing.
Russell said that Powell’s continuing onstage alone was no act. He gave Powell all the credit for being just completely engaged with his own virtuosity. Further, he felt that the audience had come to expect this. Yet it wasn’t a rote routine; Powell meant it, every time that he did it.
At other times, though, Powell walked off the stage in the middle of his set, leaving the musicians who played in support of him to finish by themselves. At still other times, at set’s end, he apologized to the audience for what he thought was the substandard level of his sidemen’s play—to their astonishment.
“They get away with murder,” Russell said of such geniuses. “When you see the beautiful side of them, and what they can produce, musically, you have to go along with them.” When Powell dug in at the keyboard and poured out seamless yet intricate solos, Russell said: “[A]ll was forgiven. It had to be. If you played music or you loved music—all is forgiven.”
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No musician of Bud Powell’s era had such capacity for improvisatory excellence and was so ready to unleash it, instantly, in such concentrated form onstage. And no nightclub celebrity of any type was less available to his public offstage, especially to explain what he’d done or how he’d been able to do it.
This book is the story, then, of the least reluctant performer—but one whose anomie surfaced from the moment that he left the stage, and whose discomfort was only alleviated again with his next appearance behind the keyboard.
Wail: The Life of Bud Powell is an unsentimental biography—not hagiography—of a major jazz artist. It’s based as much on an exhaustive look at the public record and press on Powell, as it is on eyewitness accounts of his live performances and on personal opinions of his private life—in addition to subjective assessments of his studio recordings. The book treats all of these accounts as so many pathways to understanding the central paradox of the musically explosive yet emotionally impassive Powell: How could he have played with such rhythmic euphoria (and romantic feeling!) and, yet, seldom if ever have allowed anyone to see the physical and psychic pain that he was often enduring?
While I don’t flinch from examining with discernment the era or reporting with candor Powell’s antisocial behavior, I’ve striven in the early chapters to place him as much as possible in the company of other great musicians. I celebrate those whom the emerging artist looked to for inspiration, as any book that chronicles the jazz life must begin with an examination of the world that musicians made for themselves, both in the heat of collective interplay and afterward, when they were between sets or gigs, or on tour. So many ideas that contributed to the emergence of modern jazz, in the Forties, were developed offstage, in conversations that took place wherever two or more musicians met.
As well, where I’ve based my narration on Powell’s private associations, I only reported what his fellow musicians and intimate fans have recalled for me. I don’t pretend to have been there for any of it.
I have concluded, though, that the hours spent with musicians were Powell’s happiest, and that no one’s company gave him more pleasure (as well, of course, as direct inspiration) than did Thelonious Monk’s. As they soloed on the same instrument and, in their early years, in the same Harlem nightclubs—and were both advancing the language of music—I see their extraordinary cross- pollination as comparable to that of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
* * * *
Bud Powell’s playing life changed in the early Fifties, though. For all the musical bonhomie that he’d engaged in as a promising musician, he became established as a solo, improvising artist. He had a bassist and drummer in support on almost all occasions, but he was promoted as a star deserving of singular status. He had long devised beautiful solos without regard for his rhythm support; if they couldn’t follow him, he went ahead just the same. But in the early Fifties he became less concerned with the paths in music that his fellow innovators were forging.
A discomfiting stare, which Powell often put on when in the company of nonmusicians, was increasingly remarked on as his celebrity grew—though he’d never liked to talk, even to musicians, if he deemed them to be less serious about their art than he was. But onstage as well, he showed little interest in indicating, to his sidemen, what tune he was going to play. He sometimes did likewise in the recording studio.
This reluctance was in part due to some desperate need that Powell had always had, to cling to his instrument as the default spokesman for his self and his soul. It came, as well, from the confidence that what he did was the result of the decade of classical training that he’d had in his youth. Musical explanations were, he felt, a waste of time; how could anyone understand what it took him so long to master?
Powell had another reason to talk only reluctantly about what he did at the piano and why. The new music that he and others had promulgated since the early Forties was characterized in the press as a wholesale rejection of the musical status quo, swing music. These modernists were, it said, jettisoning the rhythmic and melodic conventions that had made jazz so danceable. So all that they were experimenting with, including unorthodox chord intervals, was given a catchall epithet—bebop.
The press initially used the term only sarcastically.
Yet for all of the obstacles that the modernists faced, and those that specifically constrained Powell, he had been lucky to be born in the midst of Harlem’s great artistic ferment. He was just old enough to have witnessed, in speakeasies and other informal settings near his home, all of the great masters on his instrument. Drawn to Harlem as the center of such musical activity, and through their constant competing with each other, these performers displayed, for a discriminating and select audience, the entire history of jazz piano in epic solo battles that lasted all night.
Once Powell had absorbed all of this, his will to greatness was driven by the courage not just to better these acknowledged titans technically but to lay out, on the keyboard, his unique, improvised solos— at the brightest tempos—to best even his contemporary rivals. “‘I’ve got somethin’,’” he told another young pianist, “‘they can’t get.’”
From the Harlem crucible of experimentation, which peaked in the early Forties, Powell and his fellow modernist innovators eventually brought their music to a wider public. As the postwar era began, they started appearing in nightclubs all over New York City and in other major cities in the US, and then they brought their various modern approaches to the major cities of western Europe and, eventually, everywhere else that jazz was reaching.
So, wherever in the world small-group modern jazz is heard today, no matter the kind of nightclub, the pianist is going to play some Bud Powell during his or her set.
* * * *
With this biography I wasn’t satisfied to elaborate an enthusiastic chronicle of Bud Powell’s performances, even if they had yielded a natural, narrative arc—from prodigy to early collaboration to recognition to solo stardom to mature celebrity to decline to death.
For one thing, Powell’s career doesn’t describe a typical arc. He did rise quickly to preeminence among modern-jazz pianists, attaining stardom in the prominent midtown nightclubs within four years of his first professional appearances in Manhattan. And within just two more years, he had recorded as the leader of his own trio with the two companies with which his repertoire’s legacy is most secure.
No performing artist created as enduring a legacy within a shorter time. In fact, Powell’s appearance in a general reference work, Webster’s Biographical Dictionary—wherein are listed kings, generals, inventors, and theologians—is predicated on the fame that he’d achieved, starting from anonymity, in those six years. At the end of that time, he was twenty-six.
But the arc that jazz lives have famously drawn, of precocious talent and early fame followed closely by steep decline or early death, was not Powell’s—even if his life has almost always been characterized as tragic. He had a second act. His artistic decline was gradual, with the ratio of great to acceptable performances, a dozen or more years after his 1949–51 peak, high enough to bring out crowds at the clubs where he appeared. This second (and third?) act lasted two and a half times as long as had his first.
What never diminished at all in Powell, however, was the necessity he felt to hold his audience rapt— making them desperate to hear, even well past his prime, what genius might suddenly erupt from the piano. In all of the accounts that musicians and spectators gave me was the image of a truly uncompromising solo artist, one who played his music with the same intensity whether it was 6 p.m. or a.m., whether what was before him was a parlor upright or a concert grand, and whether he was fifteen or forty years of age.
From the moment that Powell entered a venue, he saw nothing but the piano, blotting out everyone and everything around him. He was determined to play the instrument, whether he was invited to or not. And once he commandeered the piano stool, he fought, with his inventive solos, never to give it up.
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In researching Bud Powell, I first shadowed his goings-to and comings-from the famed nightclubs that he appeared in and the now-legendary studio sessions that he made. I then plotted these movements, creating an itinerary of his professional life. But the more that I learned of his personal life, the more I realized that I had to shadow him in his goings and comings in it, too. For one thing, he existed in a world where alcohol and narcotics were omnipresent. And the consequences of his abuse of them were severe, adversely affecting his opportunities to play.
For almost a decade, from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties, society often saw fit to dispense with Powell, either by involuntarily incarcerating him in hospitals or stripping him of his right to play in clubs. These were the outcomes of court hearings—which Powell chose to ignore, wasn’t aware of, or couldn’t comprehend. (He did have the eventual good fortune to be represented by an attorney, Maxwell Cohen who, along with Thelonious Monk, had the most salutary impact on Powell’s life.)
His time in institutions, as a consequence of the former outcome, amounted to three and a half years in this period. These years haven’t been left out of my narrative; in fact, they create a parallel to the one that jazz fans know, of his great records and thrilling live appearances.
These hospitalizations were cruelly reported in the press. They were also spread as gossip, in and around the clubs; some of these rumors, it turned out, had been wholly invented. But once word got around that Powell had just been released from or was about to return to the hospital, spectators eagerly looked for signs of emotional improvement or, more often, decay. They made amateur pronouncements of his psychological state and incorporated them in their assessments of his musical abilities.
This kind of sordid opining appeared in reviews of Powell’s work. Critics felt comfortable guessing what his mental state was. For this treatment, Powell’s only true comparators in his time were Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, about whom as well old myths are still believed (and new ones still being created).
Yet, for better or worse, the nightclub was where Powell was found most of the time, where he repaired to no matter his emotional condition or employment status.
And, so, this biography breathes that air most of all. Further, I give life to Powell’s fans, those loyal people who came to see him play, as their enthusiasm fueled Powell’s fire, no matter how much he seemed the aloof, singular performer. Beyond that, though, I look at the complex interaction that existed between him and specific fans. And, most of all, I illuminate the complicated relationship that Powell had with Francis Paudras, which dynamic has already been the subject of a major biopic.
The other unfavorable outcome for Powell, his being intermittently denied the chance to perform in clubs, was due to the peculiar restrictions that existed in New York City during his heyday. In my appendix, I look at the evolution, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, of police interference with the livelihoods of those who worked in nightclubs—with reference to the city’s charter and administrative code.
* * * *
My appreciation of Bud Powell’s art has only grown during the years that I’ve listened, over and over, to his records, and throughout my investigation of his life. But I admit that I learned only inchoately what private happiness he’d found when he was not involved with music. Intuiting what is in another’s mind is, anyway, a dangerous undertaking—even for a biographer. Those few who felt that they knew Powell well wanted me to believe that he was “all music”, so they offered little insight into his life offstage. I’ve documented his time in psychiatric institutions, but I make no effort to confer my own analysis on him.
This part of my narrative concerns more the social and economic currents that ran through the lives of jazz performers in mid-twentieth-century New York City—even those currents that Powell did all that he could to ignore.
Thus, this is a political book. It looks to explain how one of the most exciting art forms coexisted, at one of the world’s great centers for entertainment, with the harsh realities that its performers had to endure. And it looks to explain the particular obstacles that Powell faced—ones that made a musician who’d played with him conclude, years later: “Something within him made it work, even when everything else was conspiring against him.”
I hope that those who know Powell’s music will find the facts of his private life, hitherto unknown, illuminating. But I also hope that some who don’t recognize the name Curly Russell, or don’t know what took place in the heyday of the nightclubs on Fifty-second Street, will want to learn about those times, and about the life of its most desperately talented, uniquely expressive solo artist.(return to top)