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.
Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell was born on September 27th, 1924 in New York City. His father and grandfather were musicians, as were many of his siblings, including his older brother Richard, a trumpeter, and his younger brother Richie, who played piano with Max Roach but died in a car accident with trumpeter Clifford Brown in 1956.
By his teens, Powell had soaked up much of the stylings of stride king James P. Johnson, as well as stride-inspired playing of Art Tatum and the swing of Teddy Wilson. When Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem was home to the late night jam sessions that birthed the bebop movement, Powell was there along with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian, experimenting and molding the new music. Parker’s playing in particular inspired Powell to bring the saxophonist’s ideas to the piano, spawning a style that influenced every piano player who followed him.
Powell’s first professional gig was with Cootie Williams’ big band, with whom he made his recording debut in 1944. Playing with Williams helped Powell make a name for himself on the Harlem jam session scene, where he met Thelonious Monk, who became his close friend. Monk immortalized Powell with his composition “In Walked Bud.”
In 1946, Powell recorded with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. These sessions have been issued under a variety of names including Long Tall Dexter and Dexter Rides Again. Also playing on this session are drummer Max Roach and bassist Curley Russell. That same year, Powell recorded with singer Sarah Vaughn and the Tadd Dameron Orchestra as well as with trombonist J.J. Johnson’s Beboppers, which featured Max Roach on drums and Leonard Gaskin on bass. Powell stayed busy throughout 1946, performing and recording with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, drummer Kenny Clarke, and trumpeter Fats Navarro.
Powell first recorded as a leader in 1947, releasing The Bud Powell Trio with drummer Max Roach and bassist Curley Russell, which featured such songs as “Bud’s Bubble.” The album brought Powell popular acclaim, and has proven to be one of his most enduring recordings. That same year, Powell made an appearance on the Miles Davis’s recording debut with the Charlie Parker All Stars, along with Tommy Potter on bass and Max Roach on drums.
In November of 1947, Powell’s was admitted to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, where he stayed for more than a year and underwent electroshock therapy, which caused severe memory loss. It is likely that Powell’s mental difficulties were exacerbated by a brutal police beating he suffered in 1945 for alleged disorderly conduct.
In between mental breakdowns, Powell recorded and performed some of his best work. He recorded for Verve Records founder Norman Granz in 1949, which culminated in the release of Jazz Giant, which featured Ray Brown on bass and Max Roach on drums.
Also in 1949, Powell put together a group called Bud Powell’s Modernists, which featured Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Fats Navarro on trumpet, Roy Haynes on drums, and Tommy Potter on bass. This group released an album for Blue Note, which featured such songs as ““Wail.”
In 1950, Powell recorded with tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt and also collaborated with Charlie Parker, Curly Russell, drummer Art Blakey, and Fats Navarro for the Columbia release One Night In Birdland, which documented the group’s sets on May 15th and 16th, respectively.
In 1951, Powell recorded The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 1 for Blue Note Records. This album featured frequent collaborators Curly Russell and Max Roach. This album captured the magic of this trio and arguably represents some of Powell’s best work as a soloist and as a composer. The album featured the songs “Parisian Thoroughfare,” and “Un Poco Loco.”
That same year he recorded a solo piano album for Verve entitled Bud Powell’s Mood, which featured a solo version of “Parisian Thoroughfare.” He also appeared on Charlie Parker’s Columbia Records album Summit Meeting At Birdland, which featured Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Tommy Potter on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. This album was a recording of the group’s appearance at the club on March 31st, 1951.
Unfortunately for Powell, his burgeoning career was put into further jeopardy in late 1951 when he entered another mental institution, this time for drug charges. The pianist spent the next year and a half in a mental facility. Upon being released in 1953, Powell recorded for Blue Note Records again. The label released The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 2 that same year, which featured drummer Art Taylor and bassist George Duvivier on the song “Collard Greens and Black Eyed Peas.”
That same year Powell participated in the historic 1953 concert at Massey Hall in Toronto which featured Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and bassist Charles Mingus. The group can be heard on such songs as “Perdido” and “A Night In Tunisia.”
Throughout the latter part of the 1950s, Powell continued to record in the trio format and performed very sparsely in New York City as alcohol abuse and mental problems took a greater toll. In 1956, Powell recorded Blues In the Closet for Verve Records, which featured the song “I Should Care.” Ray Brown contributed bass to the album while Osie Johnson contributed drums.
By 1959, Powell had moved to Paris, where he was cared for by childhood friend Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards, and later by artist Francis Paudras. In late 1959, while in Paris, Powell performed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at the Theatre de Champs-Elysées, where they recorded the Powell-penned song “Dance Of the Infidels.” Also featured on this song are trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
As Powell transitioned to life in Paris, he played and recorded with drummer Kenny Clarke and saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This group is heard on Gordon’s 1963 Blue Note album Our Man In Paris, which featured Clarke on drums and Pierre Michelot on bass.
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.