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.