Bud Powell Inside

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.


In capturing as much of the Bud-Powell-in-nightclub-performance as I could for my biography, I heard dozens of stories that ended with a disappointed fan having been rebuffed by the pianist at set’s end. The stories were similar: The fan approached Powell as soon as he finished and asked him how, e.g., he executed this or that arpeggio. Usually the fan didn’t take Powell’s muteness as the hint that it was intended to be — and asked another, related question.

Answer still, to use the quaint idiom, came there none. I determined to learn why Powell hated being asked such questions.

In a nightclub setting, in the heat of performance, there is in this, of course, presumptuousness: How could Powell have summed up, in a few seconds on his way to the bar or the john, what the rigors of ten years’ classical training had done for him? How could he have isolated what part of his intensive education was responsible for enabling him to execute such demanding passages flawlessly? Even harder would have been trying to find the words-—or summon up the desire—-to explain himself to a complete stranger, one who probably had no musical training at all.

But more fundamentally, these incidents were intrusions; these were people who were trying to pry into Powell’s mind–and to do so once he’d walked off the job . . . his shift over, so to speak.

Powell had never liked to talk; that I learned from the hundreds of interviews that I conducted, with everyone from those who knew him as a kid in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, to those who visited him in his latter years in his Paris hotel room. Being called a genius and, then, having demands made, to explain how he’d gotten (or was born) that way, was just too tedious for him to consider responding to.

(Although, probably as far back as his childhood, when he was being given private piano lessons, he figured out that if he remained silent, he would be spoken about if, as well, talked for. . . . So he could learn more of what he needed to know—-there were things that he was always trying to obtain; a drink, yes, but the attention and acceptance of pretty women, too—-by saying nothing.)

That was the Powell in repose. The public one, though, didn’t speak because he never liked being intercepted as he came off the stage. And about this I learned that there was something—apart from the presumptuousness of How’d-you-do-it?—-that rankled Powell, especially when the demand for an answer was made by nonmusicians.

Being repeatedly asked what were, for Powell, simplistic questions probably brought to mind the numbingly repetitive interviews that had been conducted with him by hospital staff during his stays in psychiatric institutions. There, too, strangers asked questions over and over, mostly elementary but sometimes quite intrusive ones, that reflected their needs-—which he had no desire to accommodate.

The psychiatric files on Powell, which I gained access to by petitioning the institutions in which he’d been incarcerated (as well as by winning a State Supreme Court case that I’d brought against Office of Mental Health in Albany), reveal a good deal of the nature of the conversations that the MDs and other staff tried to have with him.

In my next post, I’ll explore this further.

Of Second Acts

My last post brings up the matter, very often discussed by jazz fans, critics, and other professionals, about the arc of a musician’s career.

Too often, people like to look back at the working life of a performing artist for the purpose of limning an arc that has a defined rise, apex, and decline. And, too often, that decline is described not only in melodramatic terms but is identified as coming at the onset of any diminution of talent.

I didn’t realize, when I began to draft my work, that a theme of Powell’s career would be the fillip that moving to Europe provided. But it became clear that Powell’s life, so closely linked to his appearing onstage before his public, was buoyed by the attention that he got offstage as much as that onstage.

His European life was far more public — that’s the years, 1959 through 1964 — and his playing was better for it. . . . Not every night, but often enough to put paid to the idea, so often seen in print since his death, that his decline, from the mid-Fifties, was irreversible (or, as some have said, tragic).

This doesn’t touch on the prognostications that were made on Powell while he was still playing in New York in that period, before the move to Europe — to say nothing of those made by so-called professionals in the psychiatric profession at that time. (For that, you have to read the stories of his time in institutions, as I narrate them in Wail.)

Writing any person’s life, I think, humbles one. You get to live it, from beginning to end, while yours is ongoing (you hope). You see that it includes a number of peaks and valleys, and that a pattern to the ups and downs is not always discernible, even with hindsight.

It makes one want to value even the little things more — while realizing that the bad things, little or great, aren’t always discernible, no matter how much time goes by. So maybe one shouldn’t sweat them so much.

Bud Powell in Denmark

In February 1962 Bud Powell was out of a job. He had just been fired from Blue Note, the Paris nightclub where he, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke had been in residence since December 1959. Powell accepted an invitation to play at Café Montmartre, in Copenhagen.

The Europe stay, more generally, was a salutary second act for Powell, who had found himself unemployable in New York by the end of 1958. Europeans weren’t hospitable to Powell just because they were kind people; rather, they were so grateful to receive a bona fide jazz star, living as they were in a period of transition to prosperity from the immediate postwar period. For the Danes LPs, especially of modern jazz, had only recently been locally issued; so fans craved seeing great artists live while they also craved being entertained. Powell gave them both.

Europeans understood the precarious life of US jazz musicians. Powell had come because he could work and, so, went where on the continent a club expressed interest. Danes intuited, further, why he’d settled in Paris. So they tried harder to, to welcome him warmly.

The local rhythm section that Powell was given comprised Erik Moelbach on bass — replaced within a few days by fifteen-year-old Niels Henning-Ørsted Pedersen — and Jorn Elniff on drums. What started out as two weeks’ work became more than seven. It turned out to be the happiest gig in Powell’s five and a half years’ living in Europe.

Amongst the most moving interviews that I did were with former staff of Café Montmartre. They had kept such personal memories of the club in its heyday, which was from 1962 to 1977. And each one I spoke to led me to the next — their having long formed, for themselves, a kind of club.

Jan Klitgård Sorenson, whom everyone called Hakke Dakke, worked the front door at Café Montmartre. He recognized that the Bud Powell he saw night after night was not often the incendiary musical rebel who had once scorched the keys at Birdland. But Hakke Dakke told me of one time, very late at night, when there were no more than ten people left in the audience, and Powell improvised for thirty minutes on one tune. He never heard anyone solo for so long without repeating himself; he never saw a performer so ‘lost’ in his own endlessly fertile, harmonic imagination. When finished, Powell walked off, to silence all around . . . seemingly unaware of what he had done.

Harvey Sand was the waiter who often took it on himself to help the jazz greats, who’d had too much to drink, to get home. He remembered for me putting tenor saxophonist Ben Webster’s arm around his shoulders and getting him up the stairs at night’s end. For Powell, he’d been instructed to keep him from getting drunk, which he attempted by soaking the labels off the bottles of regular and light beer — and switching them. (Powell got wise to this, though, and then asked only for light beer.)

Sand was so ill when I phoned him that he refused to let me see him; he also refused, though, to end our conversation without extracting a promise.

“I don’t have long to live. But do me a favor, will you? Make it a positive book.”

I left Denmark buoyed by its people’s fondness for Bud Powell and his music, which in memory has meant, in a small way for me, what it must have meant for him. My book looks unflinchingly at Powell’s life but, I hope readers will find, I haven’t forgotten my promise to Harvey.

Jeff Sultanof — one of the world’s top authorities on American popular song — inspires me, to talk of the inspiration that I received in learning about Bud Powell, from colleagues such as him as well as from those who saw Powell play.

It seems that, wherever I turned to learn something (possibly esoteric, about Bud Powell’s music, or exoteric, an anecdote from his life offstage), the person whom I reached had something more — or other — to provide . . . and, then, gave me two or more people whom I also had to talk to.

I’ve been involved with the arts since I was a teenager, mostly as reader/spectator/listener/viewer. But of all of the arts, I don’t think that any inspires its followers (and performers) in the way that music does. Hence, while everyone hears differently, true music lovers don’t keep their passions to themselves. They are keen to share, even this most subjective of experiences and, further, to do what they can to educate whomever seems able to be educated.

When I went to Europe to meet Bud Powell’s people — musicians, of course, who derived some benefit from sharing the stage with him; but, as well, those who had gone to a club to see him play — I expected to hear the plaudits that had been accorded the US star players when they appeared on the European stage. After all, jazz was, in the immediate-postwar climate in Europe, the US’s greatest export aside from the Marshall rescue plan.

I was prepared for the responses that I received when I got to France, as Powell lived in Paris for five and a half years, and was a fixture on the Left Bank scene.

I wasn’t as well prepared, though, for the responses when I got to Denmark. Powell played at Cafe Montmartre in 1962, and returned there for a brief engagement in 1963. He also made an LP with his trio there, the first such session that he’d done with a European company since leaving the US in 1959.

But the reception that I got in Copenhagen; I was treated as if I were Powell. People were eager to talk to, to meet me. They went far out of their way for me. Each had his or her special story, yes; but when I said that I was less interested in anecdotes — even the most devoted Powell fan couldn’t resist telling me how drunk he sometimes got, e.g., at the club bar — a number of them began to open their hearts, telling me what his presence in their country meant. And, often, I couldn’t finish the interview without the person telling me about someone else — whom I had to speak to, who had something even more profound to say.

I felt like a courier, who had come not to deliver a message to this or that foreign official but to be the conduit, for ordinary people, who had messages for me to convey to the world.

Which will bring me, next time, to such as Hakke-Dakke and Harvey Sand. . . .

What Bud Powell’s Story Taught Me; First of a Series

When I began thinking about writing a biography of Bud Powell, I had many examples in mind. Most of them were literary biographies; that reflected my training as a literature student.

The defining moment(s) in the life; the powerful influences, chief among them the family, the early masters whom he looked up to and, perhaps, those his age of similar ambition and aptitude. I assumed that all of this would unfold before me as I looked deeper into his past, and that, when asked about these things in interviews post-release of the work, I would be able to rattle off the answers. “I came to my conclusions about Bud Powell through . . . “, and so forth (things that I’d known all along would be the answers).

It’s not that there weren’t influences from his family and Harlem neighborhood. He was born in the midst of what has become its fabled renaissance. Masters of the early schools of piano playing lived a few blocks away; there were bars where they congregated — that is, when they weren’t assembled in someone’s home that had an upright piano. And Bud’s father was a very good (if amateur) pianist.

And there were those who became true mentors, none more than did Thelonious Monk. Also, the pivotal years, 1939 to 1943, when external factors so changed the music business . . . this was the incubatory period for modernism in jazz, in a Harlem that had long been, and would remain for sometime, segregated. Bud Powell was able, under these circumstances in this environment, to take part in nightly experiments with the most talented musicians.

But while I was learning all of the necessary music (and social) background and, as well, looking ahead to his achievements — moving up from touring sideman to leader of a local trio and, then, to getting some chances to play in midtown, followed by being signed to a record contract and on to his terrific recordings and starring role at Birdland — I started listening, harder, to the people whom I was meeting. Each had a story to tell, about how and when he or she encountered Powell’s music . . . and what the very sound of his hands on the keys meant.

As I share, here, more of the process of exploring Powell’s life as I learned and lived it — more than of the results, which can be gleaned, in summary, at the website till the book’s release — I will examine what the hundreds of fellow musicians, music-business people, fans, and casual listeners taught me. . . . Over many years, I learned a lot not just about what writing a performer’s life entails, but about the widely varying effects, decades after his death, that his art had and continues to have on people.

I’ll continue again, soon, with anecdotes from the interviews that I did, and from lessons that I learned in more informal exchanges with those who had something to share about Bud Powell.

But for now, I wish Bud


and wish all of you well, too.

Bud Powell About to Commence on 88; My Website Is Live

Bud Powell turns eighty-seven on Tuesday, September 27, 2011. Which means that he begins his eighty-eighth year in two days, as I write this.

Powell only lived to forty-one, though, so it seems academic to talk of a birthday that he didn’t get halfway toward celebrating.

And yet, in the arts, commemorations are ways that we hold on to performers once they’re gone. Some of them, with each year, gain in stature, though most recede in memory, their achievements neglected (while, in some cases, it’s their epigones who get the credit that the neglected ones deserve).

My biography, Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, will soon be available from Kindle, and from my website as a download. Its release will be the culmination of more than a dozen years of investigations into his life and art. I’m excited to have it ready soon, as my way of commemorating his achievement in music.

But I didn’t write it to try to move Powell up a rung or two, on the way to Valhalla or some perceived Hall of Fame. Rather, my aim was to get the truth out about his life. So many myths have been written and spoken about him, that my first responsibility was to put paid to as many of them as I could. My work was, foremost, one of investigative journalism.

It became, as well, an examination of a number of people, staunch fans as well as fellow musicians, whose lives he affected. Powell came up in an era when musicians played and lived in close proximity, to each other and to their audiences. These relationships, as I learned about them, became a significant part of my narrative.

You can go to my website, http://www.BudPowellBio.com (official name: http://www.WailTheLifeofBudPowell.com), to get acquainted with my ideas, with the scope of my undertaking, and with what I came to feel about him, as artist and as human being.

Have a look at the introduction to the biography; browse the extensive, annotated chronology; and look at some hitherto unknown photos.

Once you’ve an idea of how I went about researching his life, and what assessments I’ve come to about his contribution to jazz, return here and tell me what your feelings about him are.

And wish Bud a Happy Birthday on Tuesday — heck, start now! — by playing one of his records!