When I began thinking about writing a biography of Bud Powell, I had many examples in mind. Most of them were literary biographies; that reflected my training as a literature student.
The defining moment(s) in the life; the powerful influences, chief among them the family, the early masters whom he looked up to and, perhaps, those his age of similar ambition and aptitude. I assumed that all of this would unfold before me as I looked deeper into his past, and that, when asked about these things in interviews post-release of the work, I would be able to rattle off the answers. “I came to my conclusions about Bud Powell through . . . “, and so forth (things that I’d known all along would be the answers).
It’s not that there weren’t influences from his family and Harlem neighborhood. He was born in the midst of what has become its fabled renaissance. Masters of the early schools of piano playing lived a few blocks away; there were bars where they congregated — that is, when they weren’t assembled in someone’s home that had an upright piano. And Bud’s father was a very good (if amateur) pianist.
And there were those who became true mentors, none more than did Thelonious Monk. Also, the pivotal years, 1939 to 1943, when external factors so changed the music business . . . this was the incubatory period for modernism in jazz, in a Harlem that had long been, and would remain for sometime, segregated. Bud Powell was able, under these circumstances in this environment, to take part in nightly experiments with the most talented musicians.
But while I was learning all of the necessary music (and social) background and, as well, looking ahead to his achievements — moving up from touring sideman to leader of a local trio and, then, to getting some chances to play in midtown, followed by being signed to a record contract and on to his terrific recordings and starring role at Birdland — I started listening, harder, to the people whom I was meeting. Each had a story to tell, about how and when he or she encountered Powell’s music . . . and what the very sound of his hands on the keys meant.
As I share, here, more of the process of exploring Powell’s life as I learned and lived it — more than of the results, which can be gleaned, in summary, at the website till the book’s release — I will examine what the hundreds of fellow musicians, music-business people, fans, and casual listeners taught me. . . . Over many years, I learned a lot not just about what writing a performer’s life entails, but about the widely varying effects, decades after his death, that his art had and continues to have on people.
I’ll continue again, soon, with anecdotes from the interviews that I did, and from lessons that I learned in more informal exchanges with those who had something to share about Bud Powell.
But for now, I wish Bud
and wish all of you well, too.