The Question of Authorship: “Conception”

Lewis Porter, pianist-composer, academic, and author, has posted a lengthy tribute to George Shearing on his blog, “You Don’t Know Jazz!”, which can be found at the website of WBGO, 88.3 FM, Newark.

Shearing figures in a number of episodes in WAIL: The Life of Bud Powell — none too favorably — and Lewis takes particular exception to the one in which I quote a number of eyewitnesses as saying that Powell, and not Shearing, is the proper author of the tune “Conception” — which is registered as, and has been on all recordings credited to, Shearing.

Here’s Porter’s blog entry on Shearing:

http://www.wbgo.org/blog/you-dont-know-jazz-with-dr-lewis-porter-george-shearing

I responded to his blog in a ‘comments’ area that’s provided below his writing. But, in slightly edited form, I’ll post my response here:

Lewis:

You base much of your opinion, that Shearing wrote “Conception”, on the way that you hear the piece. You know music, and you have listened hard to the piece, and have made a musicological analysis — one where the conclusion fits your pre- , er, Conception.

But I have now, over more than fifteen years, witnessed hundreds of musicological discussions — granted, in miniature — at the jazz-research listserve. And it is the rule and not the exception that two experts (whether skilled musicians, instructors, or professors of music) don’t agree on what they hear in a given passage. Often, they don’t even agree on the notes that comprise a given chord — where both have listened to the same take of the same version of the same tune on a record.

I just don’t believe that having expertise on keys, time signatures, tempos, chords, etc. gives one the final word on who wrote a piece of music. There are just too many variables — music, as we know, is all around us, affecting us in ways that we aren’t fully conscious of. Where did you first hear a certain passage — can you always recall? When you write what you think is an original musical phrase, isn’t it possible that, on reflection, you realize that it came from someone else — or from somewhere else, even if you know not by whom or where?

The matter of origins, in whatever discipline, is extremely problematic. Where were the first blues played or sung? Who wrote the earliest sonnets? Are we sure that we know who the first painter was to experiment with geometric shapes on the canvas?

If Shearing published “Conception”, isn’t it possible that some of it, maybe the germ of the piece, he’d gotten from Powell? And if he was known in the clubs to copy, in his set, the solos of whomever he played opposite, what makes you so sure that he didn’t lift phrases of “Conception” from Powell, who was playing it — even if just fooling around with it before people entered — in Shearing’s presence?

Miles Davis, in a 1958 interview, admitted that “Swing Spring” was based on an idea that Powell used to warm up with in the early Fifties. While Davis built on what Powell had played, he had no problem in ascribing the idea to its originator –- that is, as far as he knew; it might have been in the air for longer.

My conclusion, in WAIL: The Life of Bud Powell, is not my conclusion but that of four or five significant eyewitnesses: Al McKibbon and Buddy DeFranco both played with Shearing in the very era under discussion. McKibbon was also playing with Powell at this time; DeFranco appeared opposite Powell. Gil Melle was in the clubs all of the time c. 1950, and he said that Shearing was a copycat; Claude Williamson said the same thing.

Why would all of these people who, from my experience with them, appeared to have little else in common, make this up? They were all in agreement: The germ, if not the entire, written-out piece, was Powell’s. If the way that they stated it in my book was peremptory, or smacked of a certain finality, they were trying to redress a wrong: The idea, to their thinking — and they knew both musicians’ ideas intimately at the time; that’s crucial to this discussion — deserved to be attributed to Powell and not Shearing.

It’s universally understood that music evolves, and that all composers build their works in part from that of other composers — no one creates entirely ex nihilo.

If Miles Davis played around with “Conception”, wasn’t he more likely to have lifted some of the idea from Powell, whom he was associating with nightly (and from whom he also got what he titled “Budo”), rather than from Shearing, whom he probably did what he could to avoid?

Finally, Lewis: You base your analysis on what you hear, and you sound very final about it: No question, you’re saying, I hear Shearing all over “Conception”.

I based what I wrote on the testimony of those who were there, hearing both artists play nightly. There’s much that happened then, in the moment, that no amount of sheet music — and listening, sixty years after the fact; even expert listening — can trump. I have no reason to think that I know better than those who were there, playing on the bandstand and hanging out with each other backstage, and elsewhere.

WAIL is now available in paperback

This week, Wail: The Life of Bud Powell is available as a paperback, for $19.99 plus postage.

I am thrilled to be able, now, to offer readers a choice: paperback or ebook.

The many issues that Wail raises, about Powell’s thrillingly successful recording and performing career — overcoming, for a while at least, near-insuperable obstacles — have inspired some of my readers to comment about it to me. Some of their comments appear as reviews, at my Amazon web page, and I’ve used them as blurbs for the dustjacket of the paperback (yes, the cover has flaps, to hold one’s place in the text, as do hardcover books).

But I look to get a discussion going at the Wail Community web page. Powell’s career was unprecedented, starting with his debut recording session as a leader . . . the circumstances of which, and year in which it took place, being hitherto unknown, even to hardcore bebop fans.

Some of those issues I raised in the two-part radio program, hosted by Dan Morgenstern, that was broadcast on WBGO, Newark, 88.3FM in the fall. (They are streaming, still, at http://www.wbgo.org.) Others I hint at at the Chronology page of my website (www.BudPowellBio.com).

Please visit the site and, once you’ve read Wail, help to engender new discussion about this singular performing artist.

Bud Powell Is 88!

Let’s all listen to the genius of Bud Powell today on this, his eighty-eighth birthday.

I’ve gotten some support in my effort to get news of my book, Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, to the world:

Go to http://www.npr.org, search for music, and go to A Blog Supreme. You can hear the latest in its Take 5 series — five recorded performances by Bud!

Also, go to http://www.wbgo.org, and find the link to the Bud Powell programs that I recently did at the station with Dan Morgernstern. While the first of the two hours in which we played Powell’s music doesn’t air, on 88.3FM (Newark), till Sunday night (at 23:00 Eastern), you can hear it at the website right now.

HAPPY EIGHTY-EIGHTH, BUD.

 

Readers of WAIL Have Their Say

The following comes from Austrian Gerhard Schramke, a longtime fan of Bud Powell who plays piano in his free time:

DEAR MR PULLMAN:

I just finished your book last week and enjoyed it very much. I´m a great fan of Bud and try to get as much information about his life and his music, as I can.

One of the most important things: I noticed that you mentioned that very much of the unissued stuff of „Bud at Home“ has obviously wrong „recording dates“ (1961).

I have all that recordings (33 CDs) of unissued material and always wondered why so much of that stuff is dated from 1961 if it doesn´t sound like being from ´61. I always had the impression that it might be from later years. I´m glad I have that material, but it´s hard for me to listen to some of the really bad tracks, where Bud fumbles on tunes he once played fast and strong. It´s painful to listen to and I dare to say it´s even weaker than the 1954/55 albums for Verve.

But some of the stuff from Birdland 1964 is really good, among it that great version of „Thou Swell“ with it´s stride section (that you mentioned) . Did you notice, that Bud during that time played a lot of tunes, that he had recorded during the midfifties for Verve, tunes he didn´t play in France ? (Thou Swell, That Old Black Magic) ? Maybe, some of Bud´s painful memories from the midfifties came back to him, when he returned to Birdland, maybe that´s why he picked up tunes that he recorded during that unhappy years, while in France he mostly played vintage bop tunes from his great early years, with much of the power of the „early Bud“?

GERHARD SCHRAMKE

Dear Gerhard:

I won’t speculate on why Powell played certain tunes on his return to New York — for a gig; he said for publication that he intended to return to France when the engagement ended — but to your list of such I’ll add Irving Berlin’s “The Best (Thing for You Would Be Me)”.

One way to look at the change in repertoire, at least from the time of Powell’s 1959 arrival in Paris (compared with what he’d been playing in the mid-to-late Fifties), is that he wanted to continue the promotion of bebop on the continent. Recall that modernist ideas were, along with other aspects cultural and not so, slow to gain a hold in lands that were just trying to recover normalcy after the war’s devastation.

Powell, Miles Davis, and Modern Jazz Quartet had all been headliners (with Lester Young) of Birdland Stars ’56, which played in twenty or more European cities, some of which had hardly recovered from the war by the time of their arrival. Most of the players saw themselves as emissaries of not just jazz but its modern movement, which must have still seemed new to most concert attenders.

Also, once Powell moved to Europe in ’59, he gravitated to those modernists who were (or soon to become) resident there (Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford and, most important, Kenny Clarke) or were visiting. As Powell, in his only extant interview of any length (done in October 1955), can be heard to talk of “crusadin'” for modernism . . . then he probably saw his role, at least in his early year or years in Europe, as one of promulgation.

And, when it came to such promotion, he never tired of putting forth Monk tunes, which he can be heard playing, live and in studio, when and wherever he played in his European years.

As for the issue that you raise, of the dating of unissued material:

Francis Paudras was a terrible record-keeper. He loved Powell so much but, once he returned to France without him, he suffered badly from the separation. He felt that he had failed in his goal, to fully resuscitate Powell’s career and make him a healthy person. I can’t be sure, but I think that Paudras went through a period when he tried to put the Powell part of his life far from his mind.

If I’m right about that then, when he returned to thinking of their time together, he found that he hadn’t kept any type of diary or other reliable account of what had happened to him and Powell, and when and where it had happened. He had a lot of personal effects and memorabilia from their time together, but he had a hard time sorting things, as to when and how he came by them.

This made his writing of the time that they’d had together difficult. Notice that his memoir, La Danse des Infideles, wasn’t issued till nearly twenty years after Powell’s death (so, eighteen years after they’d separated). By then, a lot of the details of their experiences had become blurred.

Also, Paudras wanted to be seen, in history, as having been the primary person in Powell’s life for longer than he had been. With this acting on him, he backdated such as the informal recordings, to make it seem that he and Powell were intimate enough — as you say, in 1961 — for Powell to have agreed to Paudras taping his playing and speaking.

It’s very unlikely that Paudras taped anything of Powell at the apartment that he lived in in rue Boursault, which he didn’t leave till July or so of 1963. It was a very small place; he was embarrassed to have Powell stay there overnight, so he paid for him to stay in a hotel — on those very few nights when Altevia Edwards agreed to let Powell visit Paudras and, then, stay away from La Louisiane for the night.

It’s not clear that there was a piano at the rue Boursault place but, even if there was, there’s no evidence that the two spent enough evenings together for Paudras to have had the courage to ask if he could record him. For much of 1962, recall, Powell was playing in other countries, and nowhere in Paudras’s memoir or in conversation with me did he say that he was with Powell at a train station or airport, taking him to or picking him up from some other country . . . which a loyal fan, who had a car, would have done if he were close to his idol.

Now that *Wail: The Life of Bud Powell* Has Been Released

With the recent release of my book —- it is available for download to laptop, desktop, or tablet as well as to Nook or Kindle —- I’ve been thinking about Powell’s early development as a creative artist. In specific, I’m looking at the conditions under which he, as an aspiring pianist, came to maturity —- both technically, on his instrument, and creatively, as one who was so eager to get in with those, a few years older, who were talking about upending the swing-music conventions.

Something new was in the air, and Powell looked to breathe it in as others were.

As a native Harlemite, Powell had been perfectly situated, geographically and chronologically, to benefit from the great musical minds that preceded him on the scene and, then, to join with those who were looking ahead, to directions that the music could go in.

Powell started out emulating the old stride-piano masters. James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith lived just a few blocks away and, as Smith testified in his memoir, wandered the neighborhood, Fats Waller in tow, playing every piano in sight. For Powell to emulate their styles required true mastery of the entire keyboard. But he strove to acquire their skill from a young age, his classical training (from a very young age) enabling him to do so. As he matured, then, he looked to take on other challenges — whether or not he was justified in thinking that he had mastered their styles. He made himself musically and emotionally available to receive the new generation of talents, including those who had come from far away and who played other instruments.

Modernism was springing up all over Harlem by the late Thirties —- when Powell was an impressionable teenager. New ideas were propounded, variously, by those who moved to New York City and by those who, at least for a while, were just visiting or passing through. Some endured and became well known, some died young; the names of some others are just footnotes to the history now. Jimmy Blanton, Don Byas, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, Victor Coulsen, Little Benny Harris, Budd Johnson, Charlie Parker, Ebenezer Paul, Allen Tinney . . . .

Those who were born in New York City or had lived there from childhood had the greater opportunities, for exposure in the after-hours joints but, also, by living side by side with so many other talents. When a young musician could meet up with another just by crossing the street, there was the likelihood of another cross —- cross-fertilization, an exchange of ideas.

Each of these musicians was older than Powell, and most of them, therefore, were able to get involved at Uptown House before he did. (Parker came the farthest, from Kansas City; he famously made his way to the place when he arrived in NYC for the first time, in 1939, although the speed at which his legend grew was in inverse proportion to the length of time that he spent there.)

The modern pianists were even more varied in their backgrounds and approaches; not all of those who came from elsewhere, to settle in New York, were regularly in the Harlem crucible: Tadd Dameron, Elmo Hope, Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Billy Taylor, and Al Walker among them.

Once Powell got caught up to the new ideas -— having attracted Monk, who became his private if informal tutor—he was perfectly placed to put these ideas to work. He had the piano technique of his forebears and the absorptive mind to want to learn from the modernists.

It was the second half of the Forties, though, that was Powell’s window for putting all of this together. Others -— some near enough in age, some not on the Harlem scene at all —- got the chance to lead groups and record dates before he did. Dameron, Erroll Garner, Al Haig, George Shearing, and Lennie Tristano -— all made their names in these ways first.

As the narrative in Wail shows, Powell had a number of personal setbacks that deterred him from getting such landmark opportunities. Nonetheless, as he put hurdles behind him, he fought to get what he had long thought should be coming to him. From the recorded evidence, the 1949 sessions under his name, he more than repaid history.

Ideas Rushing In from Elsewhere

I discussed the earliest musical influences that Bud Powell had, which were, of course, his father and his formal instruction, followed a few years later by the great Harlem piano stylists. These he first heard about but, given his residence in Sugar Hill, soon couldn’t but have heard live.

Art Tatum was the summit, for Powell, of piano technique. From the time that Powell began to assimilate his playing — it can be heard in his ballad playing on record, throughout his career — he never looked up to another soloist on the instrument as his superior or, even, looked to emulate one aspect of another’s style.

He did have pianists whom he shared with — but as equals. Thelonious Monk famously looked to influence the seven-years-younger Powell (who, in turn, helped him . . . as Kenny Clarke said that Monk couldn’t play the ideas that he composed; he wrote them for Powell to work out), but it’s not as well known that Powell was also impressed with Elmo Hope’s playing. They liked to play Bach fugues, one to the other, at Hope’s apartment on Sundays. Hope may be near-lost to history, but eyewitnesses claim him to have been Powell’s equal on the instrument and nearly Monk’s equal as a composer and arranger for small groups.

These three were comrades-in-arms — or, -in-hands — and roamed Harlem for hours, looking for any place where they could play piano. Their techniques were so close, their ideas so much aligned, that it was difficult for someone, sitting in an adjacent room, to know which of the three was at the keyboard at any point. As soon as one executed a tricky phrase, another stood up and seized the piano bench, looking to see if he could play it (or, even, slightly better it). Monk sometimes stood behind Powell, reaching over his shoulders to the keys, to show him how his idea should sound — that is, the Idea According to Monk.

But before he met Monk, by 1940 or so, Powell had started hearing what other young, modern musicians’ concerns were. Powell turned only sixteen in this year, but he lived so close to Uptown House, the after-hours place that was run by Clark Monroe, that he couldn’t have helped hearing the new sounds that were coming out the door by small combos in which the horn soloists held sway — if not in the wee small hours then at seven or eight in the morning, the music often going that late.

There were so many young performers, and they’d come from so many places, that the air was full of new ideas, eager to have outlets to be heard. Many after-hours places dotted Harlem — only some of which we have documentation on, such as those that were listed in the old 3-LP set, The Sound of Harlem — but, as well, these would-be revolutionaries exchanged ideas off the stand. There were constant conversations, wherever two or more musicians found themselves, whether just before or after playing a gig, or in one or another’s hotel room or apartment.

The hotel rooms were populated with those who had come from afar, hoping to get work in New York City, looking for the chance to try those ideas out. But if there wasn’t work, there were always like-minded guys to hang out with.

The most famous of such informal hotel-room exchanges is the one that took place between Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian, in which they discussed some of the chordal foundation of what came to be known as bebop. But such conversations were taking place all the time, everywhere.

For native Harlemite Powell, the diverse ideas brought by those who arrived from elsewhere inspired him; they were the second phase to his education after his formal piano training. New arrivals brought even the blues from scenes in the south, midwest, and southwest — though they often associated that idiom with the poverty that they’d left behind. They also brought what advanced ideas they’d picked up on the road, as there was a natural cross-fertilization that took place when musicians met in the midst of touring in big bands.

Powell’s experience outside New York City remained, however, limited even as late as the war’s end and into the late Forties. He was waiting, therefore, for the ideas that people from other places brought to Harlem. His appetite for the new, in the latter half of the Forties, was considerable.

The Influences that Bud Powell Carried: Part One

Early in my research phase of Bud Powell’s life, I was in Holland looking to speak with anyone who had played with or seen him play there. Powell was based in Paris for five and a half years (1959 to 1964), but he got a number of invitations to play at clubs in other places.

A Dutch colleague, journalist Bert Vuijsje, wanted to know about the early influences on Powell’s solo technique and style. I assured him that I would do what I could to provide them in the finished work.

The obvious place to begin such a discussion is with Powell’s father. While he made a living as a building superintendent, he played expertly, in his Harlem home, in the stride style. But he wanted more from his second son, so he started him on classical-piano instruction from about age five.

Powell’s teacher, whom all his students called Mr Rawlins, taught what he called the drop-touch technique, which emphasized using the muscles in the shoulders and upper arms, taking pressure off the forearms and fingers — so that they could act like pistons on the keys rather than their having to provide all of the force.

Powell learned a wide range of the classical repertoire, but Rawlins allowed him to concentrate on those composers whom he enjoyed most. Powell developed the keenest attachment to Bach, Chopin, and Debussy.

Shortly after his formal instruction had begun, Powell and a friend looked, whenever possible, to sneak into St Charles Borromeo, the Catholic church that was around the corner from where they lived. It had a pump organ that tempted them. They stole the chance and, before they got chased away, had fun with the huge instrument — which took two of them to operate. The friend worked the pump.

Later, still, Powell started paying attention to the piano music that he was hearing on the streets of Sugar Hill, the Harlem neighborhood that stood high above the rest of Manhattan. Pianos were everywhere, in the front-room parlors of the nicer residences, in the neighborhood bars, and in those apartments that used the instrument for informal parties, at which an entry fee was collected (and alcohol was sold) to pay the rent.

A number of the pianists who appeared in such neighborhood places were already legends by the time that Powell heard them — heard, at first, casually as he walked the area, the music coming out the windows in the nicer weather. Later on, when he dared to enter these venues, he heard Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P Johnson, and Fats Waller, among others. By then he’d heard them on radio and on record, and had striven to imitate their styles.

Powell’s first public appearance on the piano was at one of these rent parties. His father had relented to requests by neighbors, who had heard that the ten year old could imitate the greats.

Art Tatum, who became Powell’s idol, was harder for him to copy — aside from the fact of Tatum’s universally acknowledged mastery, his appearances on the Harlem scene had been few to this point in Powell’s youth. And there weren’t that many of his records available at the moment when Powell made this first appearance, which probably happened at age ten.

So when people said, ‘The kid’s good, but can he do Tatum?’, Powell realized that he had a long way left to go — once that remark was passed on to him.

TO BE CONTINUED . . . .