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Behind the Scenes -- January 1996

An Interview with Francis Davis

How did you come to write a piece on Bud Powell?

The occasion seemed right for it given the release of two boxed sets, his complete Verve recordings and complete Blue Note recordings. I also hadn't done a jazz piece for The Atlantic for a while. The last jazz piece was on Roswell Rudd, a trombone player. Since then I've done five or six pieces but they were all on various other things, everything ranging from Elvis Presley to Stephen Sondheim, rap, Guys and Dolls, and the TV-show Seinfeld. But no jazz piece for a while, so it seemed like a good time to write one.

How does bebop fit into the history of jazz?

It has become jazz in a sense. It's what most people think of when they think of jazz at this point. It's what's usually meant. It's been the mainstream of jazz for over forty years now and approaching a half-century, which is an interesting development because it started off as a kind of avant-garde movement, though I don't think any of the musicians themselves would have described it that way. It's become synonymous with jazz in the same way that a handful of composers like Beethoven and so on have become synonymous with classical music.

Is there a point in history where bebop overtook traditional jazz?

The most convenient place you could point to would be the 1941 recording by Jay McShann's big band that has Charles Parker in the saxophone section. And he did a solo. I don't think anyone at the time realized that this represented a real break. Looking back, we can see that it did. We can see that as a real transition point.

Do you think bebop makes a political statement?

It's always tough to distinguish politics from culture in the first place. I think a lot of it had to do with drugs and with the introduction of heroin. Like that famous scene in The Godfather, whether it's true or not, when they decide to concentrate on black areas in distributing the stuff. It sounds like a sweeping statement to say that most of the important players had a period in which they were hooked on drugs, but I think it might even be true. A large number had gone through that and some of them didn't survive. It seems part of the romance of the music--part of the romance both then and now. The rebellious junkie-genius. Bud Powell was not a heroin user as far as anyone can tell. But he certainly came close to drinking himself to death to get rid of all the other problems that he had. I think because madness was so much a part of that world that it's hard to separate Bud Powell's individual madness from the madness of the music and the madness of the period. But here's somebody who really was mad by any standards.

What drove him to his madness? Had he always had it?

I think it's a combination of both. A lot is blamed on three things. First there's the problem of race. That compounded by the problems that artists face regardless of race, especially in pursuing something that is seen as a challenge to the status quo and is initially unpopular. Third there was the clubbing over the head he suffered by the police and the shock treatment that he received during the various times he was insitutionalized. There are earlier indications that he had antisocial tendencies. He could be very erratic. There's a story that's not in my piece about the first time that [Thelonius] Monk brought Powell to the after-hours sessions, when Powell was a very young man. He gets kicked out because he puts his feet up on the new white table cloths. The club management kicked him out. There are plenty of stories like that from when Bud Powell was a teenager. I think he was already drinking pretty heavily.

Was he just a defiant person?

Yes, but his defiance expressed itself not only in his relationships with record company owners or club owners, but with other musicians. One anecdote that got left out of the piece for reasons of length: At that first recording session the trio wound up recording eight numbers. They were only supposed to record four, but the four went so smoothly without any hitch so they had extra studio time. So the producer asked them if they'd record four more. For some reason--and this is before LPs--they recorded what amounted to two 78 records in each session--"a" side and "b" side. Powell said yes. The drummer Max Roach said quite reasonably that they should be paid double for it. And Bud Powell said to Max Roach, his own drummer: "What are you complaining for? You're just keeping time. I'm doing all the work." If you listen to Max Roach's drumming, he's not just keeping time. They almost came to blows and the producer had to separate them. Then they recorded the other four numbers without a hitch. Powell's arrogance and defiance expressed itself with other musicians too. At least when he was a young man. When he got older he seemed lost, tragic--his fighting days were over.

Do you see a relationship between the jazz music of that era and African-American music of today--say rap or funk?

I think people are always willing to make a connection between bebop and hip-hop just because they rhyme. But I think there's a real connection between the blues and hip-hop. The interesting thing about hip-hop is that it is a kind of folk music, though it is dependent on technology. It is a kind of homemade folk music with people using whatever means are available to them to make music. I think one thing that separates 1940s bop players from musicians today is that we shouldn't underestimate the ability and dedication it takes to learn how to play an instrument. It is a skill that most people involved in hip-hop have not mastered.

What do you think about the movie 'Round Midnight ? You mentioned it in your article as creating an appreciation for jazz.

I wasn't much impressed with it at the time, but in memory it holds up a lot better. It's certainly a better movie than Bird. It's got a nice rainy, tea-stained atmosphere to it that gets at something. It's more a movie, despite Dexter Gordon's performance, about fan-dom and fan-dom as a kind of fetish. What's unfortunate about 'Round Midnight from the standpoint of Bud Powell is that Powell kind of gets confused with Lester Young and Dexter Gordon himself and he becomes a kind of Everyman or Everycat. Bud Powell kind of gets lost. It's hard to separate Bud Powell from the madness of the music or the madness of the period. It becomes like a symptom of the times, rather than something specific to him. And the same happens with his music, his fantastic playing, not just from a technical standpoint--it's hard to play that fast regardless of the music you're playing--but also rhythmically and harmonically. It pointed to futher developments in jazz. Bud Powell has been seen as a kind of adjunct to Charlie Parker, as the guy who translated Charlie Parker's stuff to piano. If that's all he had done, that would certainly be quite an accomplishment. But I think you could argue that if there was anyone equal to Parker it was Powell.

Interview by Marty Hergert

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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