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.



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