Often encountered in biographical sketches of Powell is an anecdote in which a hospital psychiatrist asked him what his profession was, and Powell answered “Composer”. The MD then wrote in his summary: “Delusional.”
It probably didn’t happen in such a stark way, or in one so demeaning of Powell. The reports that I petitioned the institutions to release show a wide range, among those hospital staff who interviewed Powell, in their willingness to understand who he was, what made him different from the others, and what might be done to help him.
But the questions that Powell was asked upon admittance, to an observation ward or to a psychiatric hospital, were asked in rote fashion. They might have sounded to him as just more intrusive tedium, if this time asked by a nurse rather than a jazz fan. He was asked if he knew where he was (or, if he did know, if he could appreciate why he had been hospitalized), if he wanted to flee, if he felt that people were looking at him, etc.
Even if some of the admitting attendants recognized that each patient needed the chance to express himself individually, they accepted that these initial examinations had to follow the prescribed method for determining the course of treatment.
It was once Powell was established on a ward that some staff recognized his need for a piano and saw that he got one to practice on. Other staff, however, maintained their rote questioning of him when they needed to review his status, to file a report.
These MDs probably didn’t know what to make of any kind of artist; they seem, from what they wrote, to have been particularly baffled by one that performed at night for the pleasure of those who worked during the day. One MD, trying to picture what Powell did, concluded his report: “Says that he has appeared in one of the best bands on Broadway.” Another wrote: “[S]ays that he has made records.”
What might have been the worst such disconnect took place once Powell had been offered the chance to make a record date for producer Norman Granz, which offer was made in late 1948 or early 1949. It was the chance that Powell was so eager for, as it would be his first session as a leader — meaning that he might be consulted on whom his sidemen would be and would definitely have the chance to premiere new compositions.
Powell “plead[ed]”, in the words of one of the MDs, for the chance to be let out of the hospital in order to make the record date. As well, his mother visited him and, while there, met with the supervising psychiatrist, trying to make the record date sound as if Granz had offered Powell a job (which respect should, she felt, convince the authorities that her son was ready to return to society, to assume his new position in it).
But, even with the numerous opportunities — at this point, over a fourteen-month period — for the MDs and other staff to get to understand Powell, the signal failure of some was their lack of comprehension of a performing artist’s world. It wasn’t society at large, and a full-time job with a company, that Powell was ready to integrate in. It was the society that he had trained for and so often excelled in — thrilling spectators whenever he was given the chance — since he was a child.
The MD who seemed so surprised at Powell’s pleading couldn’t imagine the competitive society-within-society that Powell needed to get back to — that he was being given such a great opportunity to move up in.
Yet wasn’t that MD himself part of a professional society, one that he had trained many years in order to enter and to, if he could, move up in . . . ? Wouldn’t he have pleaded for the chance to rise to the top of his profession, especially if such a chance had been offered him?
Powell was released, for a few hours on February 23, 1949, and he recorded “Tempus Fugit”, “Celia”, and two other originals, along with exciting interpretations of two standards. The session remains one of the most impressive that a pianist led, in his debut, in the history of jazz.
Powell finished the date and was, then, returned to the hospital in time for dinner.