Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell (September 27, 1924 – July 31, 1966) was a jazz pianist who was born and raised in Harlem, New York City. His greatest influences on his instrument were Thelonious Monk, who became his close friend, and Art Tatum. Along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Powell was a key player in the development of bebop, and his virtuosity as a pianist led many to call him the Charlie Parker of the piano.Powell’s father was a stride pianist. Powell took to his father’s instrument and started to learn classical piano at age five from a teacher his father hired. By age ten, he had also showed interest in the jazz that could be heard all over the neighborhood. He first appeared in public at a rent party, where he mimicked Fats Waller’s playing style. The first jazz composition that he mastered was James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout”. Bud’s older brother, William, played the trumpet, and by age fifteen, Bud was playing in his band. By this time, he had already had exposure to Art Tatum, whose overwhelmingly virtuosic technique Powell then set out to equal. Bud’s younger brother, Richie, and his teenage friend Elmo Hope were also accomplished pianists who had significant careers.Bud, though underage, soon was exposed to the exciting, musically adventurous atmosphere at Uptown House, an after-hours venue that was practically around the corner from where he lived. It was here that the first stirrings of modernism could be heard on a nightly basis, and whereCharlie Parker first appeared when he was unattached to a band and stayed briefly in New York. Thelonious Monk had some involvement there, but by the time that he and Powell met (around 1942) the elder pianist/composer was able to introduce Powell to the circle of bebop musicians which was starting to form at Minton’s Playhouse. Monk was resident there and, consequently, presented Powell as his protégé. The mutual affection grew to where Monk was Powell’s greatest mentor and dedicated his composition “In Walked Bud” to him. In the early 1940s, Powell played in a few dance orchestras, including that of Cootie Williams, whom Powell’s mother decided her son should play for and tour with (rather than accept an offer from Oscar Pettiford and Dizzy Gillespie, whose modernist quintet was about to open at a midtown nightclub). Powell was the pianist on a handful of Williams’s recording dates in 1944, the last of which included the first-ever recording of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight”. His tenure with Williams was terminated one night in January 1945, when he got separated from the band after a Philadelphia dance engagement and was apprehended, drunk, by railroad police inside a station. He was beaten by them, and then briefly detained by the city police. Shortly after his release and return to Harlem, he was hospitalized—first in Bellevue, an observation ward, and then in a psychiatric hospital, sixty miles away. He stayed there for two and a half months. Powell resumed playing in Manhattan immediately, in demand by various small-group leaders for nightclub engagements in the increasingly integrated midtown scene. His 1945-46 recordings, many as the result of his sudden visibility on the club scene, were for Frank Socolow, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, Fats Navarro, and Kenny Clarke. Powell soon became renowned for his ability to play at fast tempos. His percussive punctuation of certain phrases, as well as his predilection for speed, showed the influence of Charlie Parker and other modern horn soloists. Powell’s career advanced when Charlie Parker chose him to be his pianist on a quintet record date, with Miles Davis, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach in May 1947. Powell demonstrated his mature style on the third complete take of “Donna Lee”, where he got a brief solo spot, and with his jocular chord fills while the horn players paused to breathe during “Buzzy”, the last tune recorded. When the quintet came together for the final ensemble section, Powell’s piano made its final, sarcastic comment on the proceedings.The Parker session aside, Powell was inactive for most of 1947. In November, he had an altercation with another customer at a Harlem bar. In the ensuing fight, Powell was hit over his eye with a bottle. When Harlem Hospital found him incoherent and rambunctious, it sent him to Bellevue, which had the record of his previous confinement there and in a psychiatric hospital. It chose that he be institutionalized again, though this time at Creedmoor State Hospital, a facility much closer to Manhattan. He was kept there for eleven months. Powell eventually adjusted to the conditions in the institution, though in psychiatric interviews he expressed feelings of persecution founded in racism. From February to April 1948, he received electroconvulsive therapy, first administered after an outburst deemed to be uncontrollable. It might have been in reaction to learning, after a visit by his girlfriend, that she was pregnant with their child. While the electroconvulsive therapy was said to have made no difference, the MDs gave Powell a second series of treatments in May. He was eventually released, in October 1948—though from these early and subsequent hospitalizations, he was emotionally unstable for the rest of his career. Bebop’s and Powell’s increased visibility by the end of 1948, the latter’s celebrity seemingly having accelerated in anticipation of his release, made plain as well that he had a serious problem with alcohol. Even one drink had a profound effect on his character, making him aggressive or morose. Nonetheless, after another (though brief) hospitalization in early 1949, Powell soon attained the greatest artistic height that he ever would reach.It is generally agreed that from 1949 through 1953 Powell made his best recordings, most of which were for Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records and for Norman Granz of Mercury, Norgran, and Clef. The first Blue Note session, in August 1949, features Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins, Powell,Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes, and the compositions “Bouncing with Bud” and “Dance of the Infidels”. The second Blue Note session in 1951 was a trio with Russell and Roach, and includes “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Un Poco Loco”, the latter of which was selected by literary criticHarold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the greatest works of twentieth-century American art. Sessions for Granz (more than a dozen) were all solo or trios, with a variety of bassists and drummers including Russell, Roach, Buddy Rich, Ray Brown, Percy Heath, George Duvivier, Art Taylor, Lloyd Trotman, Osie Johnson, Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke. Powell’s continued rivalry with Charlie Parker, while essential to the production of brilliant music, was also the subject of disruptive feuding and bitterness on the bandstand, as a result of Powell’s troubled mental and physical condition. Powell recorded for both Blue Note and Granz throughout the fifties, interrupted by another long stay in a mental hospital from late 1951 to early 1953, following arrest for possession of marijuana. He was released into the guardianship of Oscar Goodstein, the owner of the Birdland nightclub. A 1953 trio session for Blue Note (with Duvivier and Taylor) included Powell’s composition “Glass Enclosure”, inspired by his near-imprisonment in Goodstein’s apartment. His playing after his release from hospital began to be seriously affected by Largactil, taken for the treatment of schizophrenia. And by the late fifties, his talent was clearly in eclipse. In 1956, his brother Richie was killed in a car crash alongside Clifford Brown. Three albums for Blue Note in the late fifties showcased Powell’s ability as a composer, but his playing was far removed from the standard set by his earlier recordings for the label.
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