Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!


Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman

C. Michael Bailey By

Sign in to view read count
Wail: The Life of Bud Powell
Peter Pullman
483 Pages
ISBN-13: # 978-0985141813 (print)
ASIN: B0079NR9IC (ebook)
Peter Pullman, LLC

The best biographies are well researched and annotated without being pedantic, informative without browbeating the reader and objective without indifference, or worse, malice. There exists excellent examples to illustrate the difference between "good" and "bad" biographies, written on the same subject: Elvis Presley. Peter Guralnick produced a two-volume set on Presley, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little Brown, 1995) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little Brown, 1999). These books are the gold standard for Presley biographies, carefully researched and meticulously annotated and universally praised as a landmark in music reportage with Gerald Marzorati of the New York Times saying,

"[It] is not simply the finest rock-and-roll biography ever written. It must be ranked among the most ambitious and crucial biographical undertakings yet devoted to a major American figure of the second half of the 20th century....

... Ambitious? Ambitious like Robert Caro's exhaustively researched biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first two volumes of which have yet to bring the 36th President of the United States to the door of the White House? Crucial? Crucial like Taylor Branch's two-thirds completed and already majestic chronicle of Martin Luther King Jr., probably the man of his time most essential to the nation's unfolding history?"

On the other end of the spectrum is Albert Goldman's lacerating and corrosive Elvis (McGraw-Hill, 1984) and Elvis: The Last 24 Hours (St. Martins, 1990) of which noted Presley expert Greil Marcus wrote,

"The real significance of Goldman's Elvis is in its attempt at cultural genocide...It [was] Goldman's purpose to entirely discredit Elvis Presley, the culture that produced him, and the culture he helped create—to altogether dismiss and condemn, in other words, not just Elvis Presley, but the white working-class South from which he came and the pop world that emerged in his wake."

Goldman's Elvis books were merely lurid voyeurism intended to besmirch and malign deeply while making as much money as possible. For his part, rock critic Robert Christgau remarked of Goldman, "[It's] Too bad, in a way, that he's not important enough to merit his own biography."

Indeed, because karma is a reliably harsh mistress with a long memory.

It has become stylish to stir into biographies elements of higher social or academic significance. Pianist Bud Powell, the leading exponent of jazz piano, has proven to be a life study providing any number of social and cultural vectors to consider with his tragically desperate story. Peter Pullman's exhaustive and satisfying Wail: The Life of Bud Powell is one such book that draws into the cross-hairs the discrimination against and marginalization of African- American musicians in New York City during the deceleration of swing and acceleration of "modern jazz," AKA "bebop." Before the story even begins, Pullman establishes his opposition to labels like "black" and "white" by broadening the descriptives African- American and European-Americans and shortening these terms to afram and euram respectively. By doing so, he renders neutral the hot thorn of race in his discussion without avoiding the subject.

Against the backdrop of Powell's biography, Pullman illuminates those dark recesses of prejudice and its applications in a dismal variety forms. Pullman discusses, at length, the cabaret card as an indiscriminate tool of discrimination, used to deprive Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk...and Powell from plying their trade in the center of the jazz universe: New York City. He attacks directly the anti-benevolence of affluent eurams ostensibly "representing" afram artists while exploiting them financially and socially, particularly those artists with a diminished capacity, of which Powell was a poster example (this practice ran rampant during the blues revival of the late 1950s-early '60s). But Pullman saves his greatest indictment is of capricious mental health system whose incestuous relationship with legal and managerial elements provided a socially-engineered hegemony that could only be compared to the morality of the 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

Pullman makes his case in a calm and analytical manner that is all light with no heat. His arguments are hermetic and his condemnation powerfully applied by his exacting way of telling Powell's sordid story. He places Powell's life arc and associations into a stark relief. He adds a much needed context to Powell's relationship with his last significant benefactor, Francis Paudras, whose Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bub Powell (Da Capo Press, 1997), was the first, albeit necessarily subjective, treatment of Powell.


comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read All That's Jazz Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine Book Reviews Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and...
by Doug Collette
Published: November 18, 2017
Read Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend Book Reviews Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
by David A. Orthmann
Published: November 15, 2017
Read Softly, With Feeling Book Reviews Softly, With Feeling
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: October 24, 2017
Read Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!