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Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell

C. Michael Bailey By

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Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell
Francis Paudras
355 Pages
ISBN: # 0-306-80816-1
Da Capo Press

Pianist Earl Randolph "Bud" Powell (1924-1966) is one of jazz's brightest stars and most tragic figures. The new millennium has enjoyed a renewed interest in Powell, his life and art with Alan Groves and Alyn Shipton's Glass Enclosure: The Life of Bud Powell (Bloomsbury Academic, 2001), Peter Pullman's Wail: The Life of Bud Powell (Peter Pullman, LLC, 2001) and Gruthrie Ramsey's The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop (University of California Press, 2013). Before these biographies was French commercial artist and author Francis Paudras' Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell. Not strictly a biography, Dance of the Infidels details Paudras' close personal relationship with Powell, particularly in the pianist's later years. Both Paudras and his book become integral parts of the more recent treatments of Powell's life. Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell has previously been considered at All About Jazz by writer Larry Koenigsberg.

This story of Paudras' friendship with Powell was adapted by the director Bertrand Tavernier for the 1986 film Round Midnight, starred Francois Cluzet as Francis Borler, the protagonist based on Paudras with tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon playing Dale Turner, an artistic composite of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. This particular story, real and fictional, is one of a strange, beautiful and ultimately tragic symbiosis whose plot cannot be thought complete short of considering Paudras' suicide in 1997, an endgame that is a story in itself.

Like Artt Frank's recent missive on Chet Baker, Chet Baker: The Missing Years (BooksEndependant, 2014), Dance of the Infidels is more memoir than proper biography. Both are based on extensive, first-hand dealings between author and subject and thus, are ground level assessments of events occurring during the relationship of the two principles. Where Frank transforms into Baker apologist, Paudras begins as a mercenary defender intent on throttling the West for its infamous neglect of its greatest musical artists. Almost twenty years after Dance of the Infidels expressing the fact that the United States wholesale and systematically on a national scale, ignored her finest music because of venial racism is almost cliché. There is no question that Paudras is right, but he produces more heat than light in his criticism.

If Paudras' account of the last years of Bud Powell can be taken to task, it is for his poor ability to walk the subjective-objective line of observation. So great is Paudras' need to tell the reader how great and misunderstood Powell was and how mistreated were our greatest African-American artists by the American Press and the United States in general, that he comes off obsessed, petulant and defiant. Then again, that may be how it seems twenty years on while re-reading.

And this in no way modifies Paudras premises nor mitigates America's cultural responsibility. Bud Powell's story is one necessarily of race and discrimination, coupled with an artistic triumph and gradual personal decline. Powell's achievements, like those of many American expatriate jazz musicians, were properly honored and documented in Europe where a greater urban population existed that was informed enough of understand and appreciate it. There is nothing unique about Powell's experience. At the same time as Powell's most productive years, American blues, rhythm & blues, soul, bluegrass, and country & western was being imported wholesale by Europe where they evolved and transformed and were ultimately fed back to America later in the form of the British Invasion, after which music was not the same on either side of the pond. It was only after this that America began to come to terms with its musical heritage as is seen in the frequent seizures of jazz and blues revivals of the past sixty years.

Paudras' association with Powell began in 1959 after the author had been watching the pianist already for some time. It ended, as the memoir does, with Powell's death July 31, 1966. The story in between is not a pretty one. Powell, obviously mentally ill, is mistreated by all but Paudras, who for all of his efforts could not save Powell from himself or his circumstances. The picture painted by Paudras is one of a helpless child, someone one would expect was of borderline intelligence. That cannot be possible when considering Powell's well-established playing technique and composing ability. Could Powell have been a high-functioning autistic savant? Not enough evidence is provided here. To be sure, Powell, in modern parlance, was chemically dependent, experiencing only the ineffective treatments of the day.

Powell's story and those of Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Dexter Gordon, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson and Johnny Griffin are similar and crucial to our understanding of jazz history and the events that made that history. Paudras' account is one that while flawed by a personal myopia nevertheless provides a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding one of America's most talented musicians and how little that talent counted in the end and how much it counted to Paudras at the same time. My only quibble is that a (close to definitive) discography, with ratings, was not provided as had been in the Chet Baker biographies: Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music (Berkeley Hills Books, 2000), James Gavin's Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002) and Matthew Ruddick's superb Funny Valentine: The Story of Chet Baker (Melrose Books, 2012).


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