The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History And The Challenge of Bebop

Ian Patterson By

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The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History And The Challenge of Bebop
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.
240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-520-24391-0
University of California Press

A new book on pianist Bud Powell is something of an event. The first full length book on one of jazz's most dazzling pianists, Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell, was written in French by Powell's former confidante and supporter Francis Paudras, and published in 1986, some 20 years after Powell's death. That book did much of the leg work for Alan Groves and Alyn Shipton, whose slim volume The Glass Enclosure: The Life of Bud Powell was published in 2001. Of all the key figures of jazz's bebop era pianist Bud Powell has remained, for some reason, the most neglected.

As the subheadings indicate, this is more than mere biography. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Race Music: Black Culture From Bebop to Hip-Hop (UCP, 2004), Ramsey Jr. delves into the prevailing environment from which Powell, the African American pianist emerged. At its core, it's a race and gendered study of what it meant to be a black male jazz musician trying to make it outside of Harlem. As a potted history of jazz, it creates a context in which bebop is presented as a radical innovation not only musically, but also politically. Finally, Ramsey Jr. examines the challenges of bebop—technically, socio-politically and economically.

There are a couple of caveats; firstly, this is an academic work and much of the author's energy is directed towards scholarly analysis of the social realm in which black musicians played bebop, the factors that enabled their success and the music's significance in the determination of black American culture. Whilst this background is arguably fundamental to a better understanding of Powell and his achievements, Powell is sometimes obscured for long stretches at a time in the tangle of the dominant academic discourse.

Secondly, the narrative goes astray for a chunk of the book in a detailed technical analysis that examines, bar by bar, triplet by triplet and pause by pause the inner logic of Powell's playing style. The analysis covers Powell's development from his tenure in trumpeter Cootie Williams's band in the early 1940s through his sideman sessions and beyond. Using the aid of graphic transcriptions of several of Powell's compositions Ramsey Jr. makes the case in microscopic detail for Powell's genius. It might appeal to musicologists but otherwise it makes for a dry read. Occasionally, flashes of prose remind us of the author's eloquence and his ability to put things in a nutshell: "Powell was part of a growing collective of musicians who together were charting new sonic and sociocultural territories in American music."

Ramsey Jr. certainly makes the case that Powell was indeed one of the most significant musicians in the bebop and post-bebop years. Of all the bebop pianists Powell was the first to lead a trio date—a reminder of the piano's initial role as an accompanying instrument in bebop's formative years. Perhaps the book's main drive is that Powell's music did not exist in a vacuum and cannot be separated from considerations of time and place, commerce, art criticism and race— areas addressed with acute insight by the author.

When bebop was fermenting in Harlem in the early 1940s America was, to paraphrase trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, a country as backward musically as it was racially. Yet in the course of a few short years, bebop had changed perceptions of jazz from being a purely popular music to an art form. Its practitioners, it follows, moved from being seen as entertainers to being championed as artists. Ramsey Jr. puts this in the context of a "wide array of experimental production by black artists in the 1940s."

These artistic developments were new in themselves, as was, Ramsey stresses, the increased prestige of bebop's main practitioners, that's to say African American musicians. The literary critic Harold Bloom included Powell's composition "Un Poco Loco" on his short list for the greatest works of 20th century American art.

For Ramsey Jr. bebop was "an avant-garde cultural movement" and a cultural revolution, primarily because blacks were playing music that wasn't dance music. Bebop permitted Powell and his kin to move beyond what the author describes as the "calcified stereotypes" that existed in mid-twentieth century American society. Bebop empowered black musicians, says Ramsey Jr., not only through the unprecedented critical acclaim and enhanced economic status they enjoyed, but in the new-found "heroic performance space, one that became the new musical language of "jazz manhood.""

Powell was perhaps more reified in France—where he would live out his final years—than in America, where the mental health problems that plagued him and his alcoholism made him a less than reliable or consistent leader or sideman. As Ramsey Jr. puts it: "Apart from his music, most of his life was beyond his control: he toggled between recording brilliant original music and performing in the hospital's annual minstrel show."

Judging by the extensive bibliography Ramsey's Jr.'s research was absolutely thorough, in academic terms. However, he draws so heavily from other published academic sources that at times the book reads like a synthesis of existing ideas. Furthermore, the distinct lack of interviews conducted in putting together this book seems odd. It seems like an oversight not to have interviewed saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz, trumpeter Clark Terry or drummer Roy Haynes—all of whom played and recorded with Powell.

There's much to admire in Ramsey Jr.'s work, and more than a little food for thought. Nevertheless, the fact that Powell tends to flit in and out of the narrative only compounds the notion of the pianist as an enigmatic, somewhat elusive figure. The author's academic lucidity tends to outshine the supposed main focus of the narrative—the amazing Bud Powell.



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