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.