Powell was the most important pianist in the early bop style, and his innovations transformed the jazz pianism of his time. A prodigious technician, he was able at will to reproduce the demanding styles of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, echoes of which can sometimes be heard in his ballad performances.At fast and medium tempos, however, he preferred the spare manner that he devised in the early 1940s: rapid melodic lines in the right hand punctuated by irregularly spaced, dissonant chords in the left. This almost antipianistic style (which was adopted by most bop pianists of the time) left him free to pursue linear melody in the manner of bop wind players, and it was as a melodist that Powell stood apart from his many imitators.
At its best, Powell’s playing was sustained by a free unfolding of rapid and unpredictable melodic invention, to which he brought a brittle, precise touch and great creative intensity. Except in his later years, when his virtuosity flagged and he selfconsciously adopted a primitivism resembling Monk’s, Powell never altered this basic approach, but worked ceaselessly within it to devise new melodic ideas, harmonies, and ways of coupling the hands. He greatly extended the range of jazz harmony by reducing his chordal underpinning to compounds of 2nds and 7ths, and achieved an extraordinary variety in his phrase lengths, which range from brief flurries to seemingly inexhaustible lines that ignore the structure of the original.
Pianist Bud Powell’s lyrical style seemed to effortlessly blend arpeggios with chromatic notes, which he topped off with left hand movements reminiscent of early stride. This revolutionary combination made him a founding father of bebop, but his accomplishments were cut short by mental deterioration.
As Sonny Rollins put it, “I think he was a genius. When I was coming up, our prophet was Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker was the guy. But Bud Powell, his improvisations were definitely on a par with Charlie Parker. If you’re thinking of the bebop style, Bud Powell was supreme. In fact, some people put him above Charlie Parker.”
By 1963, Powell had tuberculosis and was in pretty bad shape. He returned to New York, and his behavior became increasingly more unstable and erratic. Powell died on July 31st, 1966 in New York City. He was given a hero’s honor in Harlem with thousands of people coming out to pay tribute to one of jazz music’s most talented but misunderstood musicians.