At Birdland, Pee Wee Marquette, the diminutive MC, had a way of shouting into the mike when he announced the names of band members. Anyone who has heard it can not forget it. It made your jaw ache like you'd just eaten a quart of ice cream on a bad filling.
"Ladies and gentlemen, he shrilled with the mike pressed right to his mouth, popping it and then causing ear-shattering feed back. " We'd like to bring to the stand now, for your enjoyment... the one, the only...the Amazing One... Bud Powell. The Amazing Bud Powell TRIO!! Bud POW-ell, ladies and gentlemen..... Bud POWell!!
From the side of the bandstand, a little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and impish smile scuttled out to the piano. He glanced up at the audience, smiled some more, then hopped onto the piano bench as if it were about to duck away from him. He sat with his legs tightly crossed for a moment. The house lights went down and he was caught in the silver circle of the spotlight. He looked up into the beam, seeming to draw energy or warmth from it, laughing quietly to himself. He re-crossed his legs and swung them to one side of the piano bench instead of under the piano.
Art Taylor, tall and feline, licking his chops as if he knew what delicious treats were in store for him, settled in behind his gleaming black drum kit. George Duvivier, pale and ascetic looking, took up his bass, grasping its neck delicately as though it were the throat of something fragile and alive.
"Ah. Ah...uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn.... Bud counted off the tempo with a succession of hoarse staccato grunts, his chin down on his chest. The music leapt instantly from his fingers. The trio just all took off settling into an instant groove. Bud was hunched over the keyboard, laughing out loud to himself like a kid on an amusement park ride. Every few bars he'd clutch at his pants leg compulsively and hike it up. His eyes rolled back in his head, and way in the back of his throat he was humming the melody line in some guttural key that had nothing to do with the key he was playing in. It sounded like a combination of bad singing and laughing. But if you listened closer, that was where the groove was. Deep inside Bud Powell's throat.
Every few bars Bud would look up from the keyboard at Art Taylor, or Duvivier, feeding them ideas, getting ideas back, laughing about them. He seemed amazed sometimes at what they'd come up with. The whole time, the expression on Bud's face looked like someone was massaging the soles of his feet. There was some kind of invisible membrane connecting the three players that seemed to pull tighter and then relax. And I realized that what they were doing was playing... in both the musical and the child-like sense of the word.
I was much too musically un-sophisticated at the time to know it, but Bud Powell was just about at the top of his game then. Tragically, in a few short years his brain would, with the help of some foreign substances and a policeman's billy club, melt down and no one would ever hear him play quite like this again.
His playing this night was astounding and daring with long, romping phrases that seemed to be heading straight for disaster until he'd pull them out of a nose dive at the very last instant and turn them around, resolving them in the most satisfying and musically correct way. He was taking ideas from everywhere and making them fit into his mosaic. Sometimes his runs were so fast it sounded like he was making mistakes because the notes all ran together. But then he'd do it again and you realized that was what he'd intended. He was playing a sound, not a phrase. Then he'd find some way to attach that sound to the next idea and a whole new composition emerged.
Bud was constructing a completely new musical alphabet and syntax, and it all went on at lightning speed. He was playing anything he thought, daring his fingers to fail him. And they never did. Not once. There's not a jazz musician today who hasn't borrowed or learned from The Amazing Bud Powell. (Many without even knowing it, perhaps.) On that one night, in one set of six or eight tunes, I heard him lay out the architecture of be-bop for the next decade to come, along with some hints at other things beyond that.
This was not just a new twist or fad. Music, all music, was taking a turn in a new direction right here tonight on the bandstand at Birdland, "The Jazz Corner of the World. And nothing would ever be the same again. Bearing witness to this was more than just a privilege.
I saw and heard Bud Powell once more after that night, but in a much less intimate setting. It was only about a year or so later in a large concert hall in White Plains, NYa place designed for auto shows and flea markets. He was opening for the Basie Band. This time I was seated a considerable distance from him. The sound in the cavernous hall was distorted, unbalanced. Bud looked like a little toy figure on a stick bouncing around way up there on the big empty stage. He bopped up and down and twitched, yanking his trouser leg up, acting as if the piano stool were a hot stove. I've seen other pianists rock around on the stool, even classical pianists, but nobody ever seemed so restless as Bud Powell. It was as though he were constantly trying to get a new and better grasp on the music as it cascaded through him.
Bud was playing the music as fast as it came to him in all its splendid complexity, but no doubt the melodies and harmonies in his head came even faster and were even more complicated than what he could get out. Nobody in the audience that night, including myself, could really appreciate what Bud Powell was doing. The sound system was too primitive, the hall was too noisy and hollow, and the incredible intricacy and subtleties of what he was playing all blurred together like some watercolor run under a faucet. What people witnessed that night, unfortunately, was more his visual eccentricities than his musical originality.
Soon after that night, they would take Bud Powell away and place him in a mental hospital where he would eventually die, his music having finally deserted him, along with just about everything and everyone else. What they could never take away, was my memory of him that night at Birdland when he changed music the way a sudden sunrise changes a landscape.