Bud Powell, during his “decline”.

Bud Powell, the pianist most identified with bebop, and a musician who deserves much of the credit for setting modern jazz’s high technical standards, was generally considered to be in steady decline after several mental health crises in the late 1940’s and early ’50’s. Powell had burst on the jazz scene as a 16 year-old prodigy, playing fully-formed bop piano with the Cootie Williams Orchestra as early as 1944, and essentially leading the way for all modern pianists by 1946. A tall order, given the prominence and legitimate talents of the then-current heavyweight champ among jazz piano players, Nat “King” Cole, in the days before he became a full-time singer.

For anyone who thinks our description of Powell’s prowess is hyperbole, check out this 1944 Cootie Williams record, featuring the 19 year-old pianist soloing on “Floogie Boo“. Later on, of course, Powell recorded dozens of solo, trio and ensemble pieces under his own name, and his playing into the early ’50’s was never short of brilliant, even if there were long gaps in his output due to repeated institutionalizations.

By the mid-1950’s, however, the uniform excellence of his earlier playing was gone, replaced by unpredictable technical performance and odd stylistic meanderings. At his best, he was still a force of nature, but all too often he was only a shadow of his former self, his blazingly fast right hand replaced by half-speed, sloppy fumbling. He still had a gift for composition, and his domestic recordings in the late 1950’s are evidence of that. The piano playing is at best flawed by his previously set standards, but at worst show the effects of self-abuse by narcotics and alcohol as well as irresponsibly prescribed and dosed anti-psychotics. Several bouts of electric shock therapy left their imprint on his playing as well. In short, these are often painful recordings to hear.

In 1959, a new chapter in Powell’s life opened with his move to Paris. Under the influence of a woman known to most simply as “Buttercup”, Powell enjoyed some fruitful years, as well as further decline in his mental state. Buttercup’s role in this is well-documented, and will not be restated here, but it’s safe enough to say that his life with her was the basis for the character played by Dexter Gordon in the 1986 film, “Round Midnight”.

What is often misunderstood is the relative quality of Powell’s playing in this era. He was undoubtedly in a slow and inexorable mental and physical decline, one that culminated in his death in 1966 at the age of 41. His playing sometimes reflects that decline in real and obvious ways. In spite of uneven musical results, he was fairly prolific, especially in his early years in Europe, appearing at clubs in Paris and across the continent, playing festivals, doing television gigs and making fairly frequent recordings.

Occasionally, he was still brilliant, even when he wasn’t the same pyrotechnical piano wizard he’d been. If the old passion was gone, it could be replaced by a maturity and nuance that wasn’t present in his earlier playing. And, even less frequently, an audience would be treated to the old Bud, seemingly restored and reanimated for an hour or an entire evening, full of the old speed, invention and fire, only to drift back into his general pattern of decline soon afterward.

There are some gems from this period, and a few of them were in filmed performances. He often performed with his fellow expatriates, including the saxophonists Johnny Griffin and  Don Byas, and drummer Kenny Clarke. He also appeared with the best young European jazz talent, most notably the great Danish bassist Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen, who became famous in the 1970’s, but who was already a prodigy in the early 1960’s.

Powell had counted Thelonious Monk as both a friend and a mentor in his youngest days growing up in Harlem, and it was Monk who got Powell started in the business with Williams and others. There was always more than a touch of Monk in Powell’s playing, even if they seem at first to be polar opposites. After all, Monk is economical to a fault, with as much space as music in his improvisation, while Powell is known for his virtuoso, machine-gun technique. Upon further listen, however, it becomes apparent that they’re cut from the same cloth, even if their techniques are wildly different.

In 1962, Powell appeared for an engagement at the club Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen. He was filmed there leading a trio featuring local bassist Pederson. The video here has Powell stretching out on Monk’s “Round Midnight”, and there are several surprises for attentive listeners. First, one might be taken aback by how Monkish Powell’s playing really is here. Yes, of course it’s a Monk tune, but most other pianists have always used its extended harmonic path as more of a showcase for their own styles. Conversely, Powell—as personal and unique a pianist as ever played jazz—certainly shows where both he and the tune come from. A tip of the musical hat in the most personal of ways.

Perhaps a second surprise is that Powell is actually in good technical form here. While the insanely fast execution of his younger days is absent, he in no way sounds like a man fumbling with declining chops to make his point. Every phrase he seems to seek is achieved with a nice, Monkish percussiveness. If one didn’t know what he had been capable of earlier, this performance would still stand out as exemplary.

Finally, Powell—never a “normal” sort—seems relatively at peace here. None of the twitching, abstract humming and other antics that he shared with Glenn Gould and a few others are present here, which leads us to think he was actually in a generally content period, however brief it may have been.

None of this in any way impacts the immediacy of the video contained herein, of course. Watch it on its own merits, certainly,  but if you choose to delve deeper, know that an entire treasure trove of Bud Powell performance awaits your discovery.

Posted in: Jazz, Videos

2 Comments on "Bud Powell, during his “decline”."

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  1. Heath Watts says:

    Nice blog about Bud Powell. I’m a big fan and he’s been a big influence on my playing. The video of Round Midnight is excellent. He certainly could play Monkishly when he want to do so.

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