Bud's Bubble

The pianist Bud Powell was mad even by bebop's standards

Speed in music can be a form of abstraction. About fifteen or twenty years ago the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, of the Modern Jazz Quartet, played an engagement at a Philadelphia neighborhood lounge, accompanied by a trio of uninspired local musicians. Visibly unhappy, Jackson sleepwalked through the first few numbers, nearly sinking to the level of the house trio instead of trying to raise it to his own. To make matters worse, a patron at the bar, who was either drunk or eager to show the rest of us how down with bebop he was, acted as if Jackson were taking requests.

The man wanted to hear a certain Charlie Parker tune. "How 'bout some 'Scrapple From the Apple,' brother?" he whined before every number, disrupting the band's concentration as Jackson counted off tempos.

After enduring this several times, Jackson fixed the man with a contemptuous stare. Without a word of warning to his sidemen, he tossed off the opening bars of "Scrapple From the Apple" at a tempo about twice as fast as Parker's moderate gallop. Racing to keep up with him after joining him on the bridge, the local musicians were soon playing way over their heads. The tempo kept accelerating, with Jackson's hands and mallets disappearing into twin blurs. Small talk at the tables came to a stop, and there was an extra split second of silence at the end, before we could bring our hands together to applaud. It lasted just long enough for Jackson's final note to echo gracefully, and for a familiar voice to plead, "'Scrapple From the Apple,' huh, Milt? Do it for me?"

I doubt the barfly would have recognized "Tea for Two" at the diabolical tempo the pianist Bud Powell chose for the ten consecutive versions he recorded, one right after another, at a 1950 recording session with the bassist Ray Brown and the drummer Buddy Rich. Some of these may have been false starts or incomplete takes; only the fifth, sixth, and tenth have ever been released. These three turned up again last year on The Complete Bud Powell on Verve (Verve 314 521 669-2), a five-disc set of Powell's recordings from 1949 to 1956 for Norman Granz's various labels (Mercury, Norgran, and Clef, as well as Verve).

Take ten is the killer. Powell begins slowly, as he does on the earlier takes, with an arioso statement of the seldom-performed verse, all the while half humming and half grunting an eerie countersong (a tic he shared with Glenn Gould); the ghost "voice" here could actually be Brown bowing his string bass. After you've heard Powell play "Tea for Two" and know what's coming next, your pulse begins to race in anticipation. A pianist I know says this performance is in "one," by which he means that no bandleader could count off four beats that fast without getting tongue-tied. Powell's improvised choruses hurry along at 336 quarter notes a minute, though a metronome would be useless in clocking his accelerating parade of sixteenths. This is not a tempo you could tap your foot to--who can tap his foot that fast?

Recognized by fellow musicians as the seminal bebop pianist almost from the moment in 1943 when, as a teenager, he made his professional debut as a sideman with the trumpeter Cootie Williams's big band, Powell is usually spoken of today not as an innovator but as a carrier of innovation. That is, he's credited with "translating" Charlie Parker's harmonic ideas to piano, much as J. J. Johnson is credited with translating them to trombone and Milt Jackson to vibraphone. This is meant figuratively--a way of saying that Parker showed the way and others soon followed. But the guitarist Bill De Arango tells an anecdote that puts a literal spin on the idea. Powell could be obnoxious as a young man, and De Arango once heard him bedevil Parker at a jam session by echoing each of Parker's phrases on piano a split second after Parker delivered it on his horn.

Some performances of Powell's sound like direct replies to Parker. A good example is "Bud's Bubble," from Powell's daredevil first session as a leader, in 1947. It's included on Bud Powell: The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings (Blue Note CDP 7243 8 30083 2 2), a four-disc set that arrived in stores almost simultaneously with The Complete Bud Powell on Verve and overlaps with it chronologically; the set begins in 1947 and ends with a track recorded in Paris in 1963, three years before Powell's death from tuberculosis, malnutrition, and the effects of alcoholism. Nearly all the important recordings Powell made as a leader in the late 1940s and very early 1950s are on one or the other of these two sets, together with hours of performances from 1953 onward that trace his irreversible decline.

"Bud's Bubble" finds Powell at the top of his game. The tune itself--the "line," as musicians say--is essentially a speeded-up, more percussive version of Parker and Little Benny Harris's "Crazeology," which was itself based on the chord changes in George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." The specific Parker performance that Powell is chasing is probably the warp-speed "Ko Ko" that Parker had recorded just two years earlier, with Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums--the same rhythm team as on "Bud's Bubble." The tempo here might actually be a hair faster than on the tenth take of "Tea for Two," and given that hornlike lines delivered with such velocity on piano require that each note be struck with even pressure and achieve equal duration, Powell's effortless articulation becomes even more impressive than his speed. But the most impressive aspect of all might be his ability to phrase coherently at such a daunting tempo--to think that fast and to translate his thoughts into action.

Powell was no match for Parker on ballads or blues. All too typical of his ballad interpretations, the Blue Note set's "I Should Care," from 1947, and the Verve set's "You Go to My Head," from 1955, are somber and without lilt, full of puddled arpeggios and sub-Lisztian block chords worthier of the average cocktail pianist than of one of the finest improvisers in the history of jazz. (In contrast, Powell's 1949 "Celia" and his 1951 "The Fruit," both of which are on the Verve set, can be counted among the most winning of original bebop ballads, once you accept the premise that ballads don't have to be slow.) Powell's blues, though crisp and delivered with élan, lacked the earthiness and melodic lilt of Parker's. But on up-tempo tunes of the sort at which both men excelled, Powell enjoyed one advantage over Parker: he didn't have to pause occasionally for breath. If only in that regard, his style wasn't hornlike at all.

Besides, to emphasize Powell's conceptual debt to Parker risks overlooking Powell's considerable influence on several generations of pianists, beginning with George Wallington, Walter Bishop Jr., and others of Powell's contemporaries whose solos often anthologized his. Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan softened Powell's attack with generous amounts of Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole. Bill Evans's inner voicings originated in Powell's 1951 Verve recording of "Oblivion," and the beginnings of both McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor are discernible in the skeletal harmonic structure and implied double meter of Powell's 1951 Blue Note recording of "Un Poco Loco."

The question of how much Powell owed Parker also ignores his arguably greater debt to two fellow pianists, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. Powell's senior by fifteen years, and the reigning virtuoso among jazz pianists when Powell burst onto the scene in the late 1940s, Tatum once dismissed him as "just a right-handed piano player," supplying a corollary of sorts to the notion that what Powell played with his right hand was merely transposed Charlie Parker. Powell ultimately gained Tatum's approval by sitting down at Birdland, the famous New York nightclub, one night when Tatum was there and playing a song at lightning speed with his left hand alone.

Or so the story goes. But it misses the point--or Tatum did, if the story is true. Powell in effect reconfigured the keyboard to the specifications of bebop, not just spinning out fleet successions of single notes with his right hand but also sounding broken chords and off-the-beat accents with his left. His left hand catapulted his right. The best way to explain its often misunderstood function in Powell's music might be to say that he drummed with it, instead of playing stride bass with it in the manner of Tatum and most other earlier jazz pianists.

Powell's left hand was so effective that even as resourceful a drummer as the young Max Roach seems to be there mainly to supply texture on "Bud's Bubble" and his numerous other early recordings with Powell. You certainly don't miss drums or bass on the eight performances from Powell's 1951 solo session for Verve. (These include his first recording of his Gershwin-like "Parisian Thoroughfare," the one Powell tune to enter the standard repertoire, thanks largely to a later recording by Roach and the trumpeter Clifford Brown, with Powell's younger brother, Richie, on piano.)

In keeping tempo with bass and drums on "Tea for Two," Powell's left hand does underline just how impossibly fast his right hand is moving. The specter of Tatum hovers over all three of Powell's surviving takes of the song, which Vincent Youmans composed for the 1925 Broadway musical No, No, Nanette. The song was already known as a Tatum tour de force, a showcase for his harmonic imagination and nimble fingers. (Hearing Tatum play the song in a nightclub, Timme Rosenkranz, a jazz writer and hanger-on, once exclaimed, "It sounded like 'Tea for Two Thousand.'") That Powell bothered to record ten takes of a tune deemed good enough for release on the fifth could be interpreted as an attempt to beat Tatum at his own game, just as Powell frequently attempted to beat Parker at his.

Playing the verse, or introduction, in an exaggeratedly slow tempo was Powell's idea (Tatum also began out of tempo, but with several bars from the end of the song, the part that goes "We will raise a family"); he may have had it while listening to Monk or playing informally with him. Monk, a connoisseur of the American popular song, also led with the verse when he finally got around to recording "Tea for Two," in 1956. (Whereas Powell seemed intent on demonstrating that he could play the song faster than anybody else, Monk seemed determined to prove that he could play it slower.) Verse aside, what most distinguishes Powell's "Tea for Two" from Tatum's is his abrupt bebop cadences and the modernist gambit of reharmonizing the melody into ascending chromatics--as much a form of disguise as the whirlwind tempo. Whitney Balliett, the jazz critic for The New Yorker, in one of his periodic forays into literary criticism, once characterized the novelist Alice McDermott as "Henry James without the furbelows and bibelots and antimacassars." This was Powell's relationship to Tatum: he retained few of Tatum's neo-Victorian frills.

Another modern element in Powell's "Tea for Two" is the suggestion of dissonance in his jabbing right hand--not as pronounced as on some of his recordings of his own material but there all the same. This, too, would seem to reflect the influence of Monk, of whom Powell was simultaneously champion and disciple. At a time when Monk was still being dismissed as an oddball whose work was irrelevant, Powell's liberal use of dissonance provided a blueprint for jazz after Parker.

Powell's influence (and Monk's) on instrumentalists other than pianists began to assert itself only after Parker's death, in 1955. By that time Powell himself was no longer the pianist he had been, and no longer quite the person.

Bebop's wanton speed and abstraction--its affronts to melody and its cubist approach to harmony and rhythm--still account for a large part of its appeal. But at least as much of its lingering mystique depends on our perception of many of its originators as self-destructive black outlaws whose philosophy might as well have been that dying young was the best revenge against the philistines and racists who would deny them both as artists and as men.

It is frequently suggested in the literature on Bud Powell that he acted crazy because Monk or Parker or the pianist Elmo Hope or somebody in a position to know convinced him that it was the only sane way of dealing with an insane world (early bop seemed precariously balanced on the thin line between madness and black rage). But Powell was mad by any standard, from the outset of his career.

"Bud was always ... a little on the border line," the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon once told the critic Ira Gitler. "Because he'd go off into things--expressions, telltale things that would let you know he was off." Powell was first institutionalized in 1945, following an arrest for being drunk and disorderly in a Philadelphia train station while on the road with Cootie Williams. He is believed to have been beaten repeatedly about the head by the arresting officers, and consequently to have suffered lifelong neurological problems.

He suffered his first nervous breakdown in November of 1947, eleven months after recording "Bud's Bubble," and was committed to a Long Island sanatorium for almost a year. There he was first given shock treatments--possibly electroconvulsive therapy, which induces seizure. Powell's 1951 arrest for possession of a small amount of marijuana resulted in another extended period of confinement and (some musicians believed) enough ECT to short-circuit him for good.

Powell has been undervalued as a composer, a point driven home in listening to the Verve and Blue Note sets in tandem. His most ambitious piece was "Glass Enclosure," which he recorded for Blue Note in 1953, with George Duvivier on bass and Art Taylor on drums. [Download an excerpt from "Glass Enclosure" (WAV, 300 K).] There's a story attached to the title. Powell had been released from a mental institution only six months before. Oscar Goodstein, the manager of Birdland, had been appointed Powell's legal guardian, and he kept Powell under what amounted to house arrest in an East Side high-rise. "They wanted to be sure he'd appear [at the club], so they took complete control of his life," Alfred Lion, of Blue Note Records, recalled years later. "One day Oscar gave me the key and I went up. There was a piano there and [Powell] played me some new things. One piece really stood out. I asked him what he called it. He looked around the apartment and said, 'Glass Enclosure.'"

Worlds away in mood from the effervescent "Bud's Bubble," despite the grim similarity of the two titles, "Glass Enclosure" juxtaposes to harrowing effect an agitated blues riff and a ten-bar fanfare fit for a king. It includes no improvisation; Duvivier probably deserves credit for the arrangement as well as the steel-ribbed bass lines. This piece has to be played Powell's way or not at all, which explains why it's so rarely performed. But Powell also composed any number of conventional bop lines that might serve as excellent jam-session vehicles--for example, the breezy "Celia" or, better still, "Dance of the Infidels," with its flatted and slightly demented bugle-call introduction, from Powell's 1949 Blue Note date with Fats Navarro on trumpet and a very young Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone. Powell's introductions and bridges were often wonderful little songs in themselves; this quality may have been another beneficial effect of his friendship with Monk.

It's possible that the reason so few musicians play Powell's compositions along with the usual ones by Monk and Parker and Dizzy Gillespie is that Powell's tunes are perceived as inextricable from his virtuosity as a pianist. But there might be another reason. A first step for a composer who wants to make a number a jazz standard is to perform it in concert night after night. Powell didn't do this, at least to judge from recorded air checks of his 1950s New York performances, which typically feature him playing pop standards and such familiar bebop anthems as Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts" and "A Night in Tunisia." Powell either couldn't remember his own tunes by that point or was in no shape to teach them to his sidemen.

A FEW months after recording his final Blue Note album as a leader, in the closing days of 1958, Powell emigrated to Paris for five years, where he was eventually cared for by the graphic artist Francis Paudras. (The friendship between Powell and Paudras was the inspiration for the 1986 movie 'Round Midnight, though the character played by Dexter Gordon had more in common with Lester Young). Paudras nursed Powell back to partial health, with the emphasis on "partial."

"He was overweight, sullen, and unapproachable, given to staring silently at the wall, twiddling his fingers when not playing," Alan Groves writes of seeing Powell in Paris in 1961, in the preface to The Glass Enclosure, a slim but informative volume on Powell's life and career written with Alyn Shipton and published in England in 1993. "He sat virtually motionless, and it was only his hands that moved when he did play. He appeared to have no interest in his surroundings, and little interest in his music."

Powell displayed symptoms that may have been related to schizophrenia or head trauma. He was said to alarm people by grinning or grimacing for no apparent reason, to look out at audiences with a blank stare, and to hold his breath almost to the point of asphyxiation during some of his solos. According to Groves and Shipton, Paudras once "listened in on a long and sympathetic interview with Bud [by a French doctor], at which Powell admitted to dreaming at night that he was constantly playing the piano, and that, even when awake, he was prone to the same dreams." The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings ends, in 1963, with a version of "Like Someone in Love" that was recorded during a lull in a Dexter Gordon session. Powell might as well be playing that dream piano--he certainly doesn't sound obsessed with the one in front of him. The track is as much an afterthought as Powell's death in New York, three years later. It's difficult to believe that this pianist is the same man who at his first recording session, only sixteen years earlier, confidently tossed off eight numbers in the time allotted for four, with no need for retakes.

Powell never lost his velocity--only his intensity, his sense of continuity, his rhythmic spring. The most alarming evidence on his American recordings of his decline after 1953 was the decreased activity of his left hand. He continued to drum with it, but almost absentmindedly--not to such furious purpose as before. The later material on The Complete Bud Powell on Verve and The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings isn't appalling, just uneven. He would recapture his form and then lose it again, often within one recording session or one number. Performances like "Blue Pearl" and the two takes of "Comin' Up," from his very last Blue Note session as a leader, suffer only by comparison with his earlier works. To ask which pianist's later work does not similarly suffer misses the point. Less than a decade separates early Powell from late. A foreknowledge of this shadows even his early masterpieces in tragedy.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Bud's Bubble; Volume 277, No. 1; pages 99-102.