February 16, 2021

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Bebop 1945-1950: Bud Powell

February 16, 2021- Today's Bebop Era Topic: Bud Powell

Bud Powell was the most important pianist to emerge from the Bebop Era and should be considered as one of the creators of modern jazz right next to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Unfortunately, Bud had a history of mental illness that has affected the way people view him.

Early on, as a young teenager, he started hanging out at Minton’s and Monroe’s and was drawn to Thelonious Monk.  He became Monk’s protege and Monk became his protector. Monk was creating his own harmonic language and although it was a major factor in the development of the new music it was Bud Powell who created the bebop style of piano playing.  He had incredible speed and Dexterity with his right hand and could easily translate to the piano keyboard what Bird was doing on alto and Dizzy on trumpet.

He started out working with a variety of dance bands and by 1944 was the pianist in Cootie Williams band.  

In January of 1945 he had an encounter with some railroad policemen in Philadelphia who beat him relentlessly over the head.  Complaining of headaches, he was first sent to Bellvue then on to a State Mental Hospital for two and a half months. Once he returned to the scene he became very much in-demand and made several sessions throughout 1946 and 1947 as a sideman.  Those recordings as well as his in person appearances established him as the top pianist in modern jazz and started influencing many others.

Trouble popped up again though when he got into a fight in a Harlem bar.  His past medical record led to an 11 month stay at Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital in Queens. He was given electro-shock treatments until finally being released in late 1948. Most people who knew him at the time said that he never was the same after that. Nevertheless he got going again in 1949 and made his first records as a leader. 

He was in and out of hospitals all through the nineteen fifties and he was often heavily medicated which made his playing and personality more erratic.

In 1959 he moved to Paris with Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards who he had met in the early fifties.  She managed his career and medication to the dismay of French jazz fan Francis Paudras who became close to Bud during that period.  In 1986 Francis wrote a book the became the basis for the film 'Round Midnight.

He returned to New York in 1964 but wasn’t able to get back on track. He had developed Tuberculosis while in Paris and passed away on July 31, 1966. In spite of all of the problems that plagued his career he had a major impact that is still felt today.  There is hardly any modern jazz pianists that are not directly or indirectly influenced by Bud Powell.  

Herbie Hancock summed it up in a 1966 interview when he said “Bud Powell was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano."