The Last Years of Bud Powell

by David Yearsley, August 10, 2016

Is it a terrible thing to sound old when you are still young? Narratives of artistic development often seek greatness in late style that visionary realm explored as the struggles of the world recedes and death approaches.

Among the many musicians who were early in the next life rather than late in this one was the great American pianist Bud Powell, whose death in his native New York City at the age of only 41 came fifty years ago this past Sunday. The moment passed without commemoration or much remark, though the British journalist Richard Williams wrote a moving and perceptive piece marking the occasion on his excellent blog, the Blue Moment.

The assaults of racism and drugs aged many jazz musicians at a viciously rapid rate. The autopsy of Charlie Parker, whose transformations of jazz were abetted by Powell’s vital pianism from Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the 1940s to the legendary 1953 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, judged the age of the thirty-four-year-old saxophonist to be over 50. One could come to the same conclusion surveying live footage from the 1960s of Powell, including that of a hugely enjoyable trio session in Copenhagen’s famed Café Montmarte from 1962, when he was in his late thirties. Powell looks far older, even if the coursing brilliance of the brisk bop he plays makes one think of the fountain of youth rather than of the grave.

However lively and joyful this music is he not only looks old but also in comparison to his youthful velocity and incisiveness sounds old. Even as he feasts on that bebop anthem Anthropology, a tune attributed to Parker and another of Powell’s fellow modern jazz pioneers, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the pianist’s razor sharp figurations have been blunted, the range of ideas shrunken, the mental invention thrumming in his head clearly outpacing the ability of his fingers to translate it instantaneously down at the ivories.

With mouth open he hummingly groans a version of the racing figures he imagines, but this background noise seems now to hold him back rather than urge him on.

Yet comparison of the state of his playing in 1960s with the blistering genius of, for example, the 1949 recording of his minor-key burner Tempus Fugue-It, should not necessarily be a cause for despair at what so clearly has been lost. His music sends grace and warmth into the smoke-filled Copenhagen bar of 1962. These are not the same qualities often associated with the rarefied difficulties of bop and of Powell in their earlier mutual incarnations.

Indeed, there is abundant glee and conviviality in his Montmarte performance, an openness encouraged by Powell’s habit of positioning himself on the piano bench turned slightly towards his audience, his left foot rather than his right on the damper pedal.

It is too easy to hear in the differing levels of technical accomplishment a steep decline. Powell was by many accounts viciously toppled from an even higher peak of virtuosity than that attained with Tempus Fugue-It and other marvels of his mid twenties; in 1945 a drunken Powell was beaten badly police in Philadelphia while on tour with trumpeter Cootie William’s band. Those who knew and played with him claimed that neither Powell nor his playing were ever the same after that incident.

What followed in the two decades that remained to him was increasingly erratic behavior and, after the triumphs of the late 1940s, uneven music. He had repeated and lengthy stints in mental hospitals where he was even subjected to electric shock therapy. These debilitations were amplified by the effects of his alcoholism.

With his public appearances dwindling as a result of his deteriorating mental health, Powell moved to Paris in 1959 where over the next three years he lead a trio made up of another bop founding father, the drummer Kenny Clarke, and the Frenchman Pierre Michelot on bass.

This is the trio heard on the 1963 Blue Note LP, Our Man in Paris, fronted by another recently expatriated American jazz giant, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Yet another refugee from American racism and cultural indifference, pianist Kenny Drew, Gordon’s frequent European collaborator in the years to come, was slated for the date, but when he couldn’t make it, Powell was called upon. Powell would—or perhaps could—only play jazz standards, so no originals were recorded on that spring day in the CBS Studios in Paris.

The proceedings open with Charlie’s Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple from 1947, which already by 1963 must have seemed like the product not just of another continent but another era entirely. Undaunted by the past, the group gives the tune a fabulous freshness from the outset with Gordon’s modal incantation beseeching bop gods to smile on the expatriates. And smile they do. Gordon launches into a sprawling solo of some eight choruses that range from scamperingly fleet to blustery stretches of his characteristic out-of-time ironic humor. In the aftermath of this mighty improvisation, a landmark of jazz as export (and import back to the USA on the Blue Note vinyl), Powell seems barely able to make it through his two choruses. They are just good enough, but in wake of Gordon’s flagship, the pianist seems perpetually in danger of capsizing.

Powell’s work improves steadily (or perhaps “Scrapple” was recorded late in the session and his endurance was frayed), and comes into crisp focus on “A Night in Tunisia.” It’s an infusion of bop lifeblood that has Powell rising up towards Gordon’s level.

Whereas the tenor player sounds forth at the height of his powers, full of still-youthful strength, Powell comes across as already on in years, sometimes working to keep up rather than enjoying himself at rejuvenating play. It comes as something of shock then to realize that Gordon, who had turned forty just two months earlier, was the older man by more than a year.

It is great comfort, then, on the 2003 reissue of Our Man in Paris to be able hear the bonus trio track of Like Someone in Love.  Powell begins with a brittle slow introduction that owes much to his friend Thelonius Monk’s simpler, more angular style. A welcoming grandeur emerges from the musical recognition of newly imposed limits, and there is pathos in the eruptions of flaming arpeggios that recall past flights of daring. When Powell starts to swing with the trio he does so in disarming tenor block chords rehearsing the tune again before launching into his celebrated right-hand arabesques and jabs, the phrase lengths and directions allows fabulously irregular and unpredictable.

Especially rewarding is the way you can hear him giving to and taking from Clarke on the drums. As Peter Pullman so perceptively put it in his 2012 biography of Powell, Wail, the pianist’s playing partners “had to anticipate that paradoxical moment, when they should assert their willingness to be led by him.” No was better at this than Clarke. There is ease in this interactive performance that, in contrast to the deeds of a not-too-distant youth, seems to stop time from fleeing so fast.

Powell returned to the United States in 1964. Many already feared he did not have long. A concert at Carnegie Hall the following year was a disaster, as his legal guardian Bernard Stollman, the founder of the ESP-Disk label, put it: “His hands were bruised and bleeding from a fall and he was unable to form chords.” The best recompense for the tapes of this concert that Stollman recorded and mercifully destroyed is his label multi-CD presentation of 1953 live recordings of Powell at Birdland on 52nd Street in Manhattan.

In spite of the gulf between past greatness and present decline that is so often stressed in Powell’s last years and premature death, there is an undeniable bravery and beauty those performances such as his “Parisian Like Someone in Love” that ennoble his late style come too soon.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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