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Bud Powell

 

 

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Practically every pianist since the 1940s has, in one way or another, been influenced by Earl "Bud" Powell.  He was, in effect, the "Charlie Parker of the piano," bringing the bebop voicing to the piano and re-inventing the style, defining the way that the others who followed him played it.  Before him, pianist used their left hand to keep a steady beat.  Powell freed it up to "comp" or accompany with syncopated (shifting accents to beats that would normally be weak) chords.  This shifted responsibility to the drummer to keep the steady beat with the ride cymbal.  With his right hand, he played lightning-fast running solos, emphasizing the individual notes with superior finger dexterity, producing solos along the same lines of Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  

He was born in 1924 and came from a musical family.  From ages 6-13, he studied Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt and won awards for Bach recitals.  Afterwards, he played in his brother's band and then, at the encouraging of Thelonious Monk, he sat in on the sessions that created bebop.  He joined Cootie Williams Orchestra from 1943-45, and he became part of the legendary 52nd Street jazz scene and recorded in many sessions with Savoy records. 

Powell life is also one of the great tragedies in jazz history.  In 1944, he fell victim to being beaten over the head by New York police in a racial incident and around this time he was showing signs of mental illness.  He never fully recovered from the beating, suffering from mental breakdowns and severe headaches for the rest of his life.  From the late Forties on, he spent time in and out of mental hospitals, with the stays growing longer in the Fifties, in which he was subjected to mind-numbing electroshock treatment.  According to Miles Davis, this robbed Powell of his creative genius.   In the mid-Fifties, Powell became an alcoholic and became abusive and hostile toward other musicians.  He moved to Paris in 1959, where he was befriended and nurtured by Francis Paudras, a young fan.  Powell's wife and friends attempted to keep him off of booze and drugs.  It worked for awhile and he made some fine recordings before he contracted tuberculosis in 1963.  Some jazz musicians gave a benefit concert at Birdland in New York City to help Powell with his medical expenses.   Powell got a little better and moved back to the States, but he died in 1966.

Powell's life, and especially his time in France and his relationship with Paudras was the basis of the film Round Midnight, with Dexter Gordon playing the part of the jazz musician (excellent film, if you haven't seen it!).


For more Bud Powell information, check out this site:

Bud Powell - from Northwestern University.

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