by Willard Manus
Bud Powell died in August, 1965, he was only forty-two years old but was
considered one of the masters of modern jazz, the equal of Charlie Parker,
Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonius Monk. Afer his death, though, his name began
to fade into obscurity, only to be rescued in recent years by the reissue
of some of his recordings. Now a book has been published about his life,
THE GLASS ENCLOSURE--THE LIFE OF BUD POWELL. Written by Alan Groves and
Alyn Shipton, the biography not only pays tribute to Powell but restores
him to the pantheon of jazz giants.
Powell's glory years were between 1946 and 1953, when, as the authors
state, "he outshone virtually all his contemporary modern jazz musicians
in technique, emotional drive and invention. His unique brilliance as
a keyboard artist meant that his essence as a player was hard to recapture
or copy, and while he influenced many other musicians, few were able to
emulate his style accurately."
What also affected--and eventually destroyed--Powell's career was his
long battle with mental illness, drugs and alcoholism. These intertwined
diseases caused him to be hospitalized or incarcerated numerous times.
As result, the jazz world began to perceive of him not as a titan but
as a wayward person, an oddball.
Powell deserves much better than that; he was a major talent and the authors
treat him as such, though they don't shy away from dealing with his tragic
Powell was born to a musical family in New York City and quickly showed
virtuoso talent on the piano. He left high school at fifteen to play professionally
in coffee-houses and hotels. Late nights were spent in Harlem, jamming
in various jazz clubs and bars. It was there that he met another young,
neophyte pianist, Thelonius Monk, who took him to Minton's Playhouse,
where the city's most daring musicians were experimenting with the new
music that would come to be known as bebop.
Monk and Powell became soul-mates. Monk later said he was the only one
to understand what Powell was doing; even Powell himself didn't quite
understand the advanced chords or new harmonies. "He wasn't playing
much then...I was the only one who dug him," drummer Kenny Clarke
recalled. "Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud
Powell. All his piano music he deliberately wrote for Bud just like a
composer writes for a singer. When you hear Bud play Monk's music, then
you really hear something."
But even as Powell was establishing himself as a musician, he began to
show signs of aberrant or violent behavior. Some thought he was crazy;
others believed he was acting crazy to gain attention. He also began to
drink heavily, which in turn led to disorderly conduct in public. In 1945
he was arrested in Philadelphia, taken to a police station and beaten
savagely. Chances are the brain damage he suffered was permanent, as not
long after that he ended up in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue.
For the next twenty years, Powell spent most of his time in hospitals
like Bellevue and Creedmore, suffering at the hands of doctors who tried
to drug or electro-shock him back into normalcy. Powell never stopped
playing, though (not even in hospital), and managed to make some unforgettable
music when he was discharged. The book describes Powell at his best when
playing a 1947 gig on 52nd Street, along with Bird, trumpeter Fats Navarro
and several other elite jazz musicians. "At breakneck speed Powell's
playing eclipsed that of Navarro and Bird. For 20 or 25 choruses, he hung
the audience on nerve ends, playing music of demonically-driven beauty,
music of hard, unflinching swing, music of genius."
Powell's work can be heard on numerous CDs, all of which are listed in
THE GLASS ENCLOSURE'S discography. These recordings, we are reminded by
the authors, confirm Powell's standing as "one of the greatest of
all jazz musicians."
(Continuum, 144 pages, $22.95 ppbk)