Bud Powell was not only one of the greatest bebop pianists of all time, he stands as one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and fiercely adventurous musical minds. His expansive musicianship, riveting performances, and inventive compositions expanded the bebop idiom and pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to higher standards of performance. Yet Powell remains one of American music’s most misunderstood figures, and the story of his exceptional talent is often overshadowed by his history of alcohol abuse, mental instability, and brutalization at the hands of white authorities. In this first extended study of the social significance of Powell’s place in the American musical landscape, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. shows how the pianist expanded his own artistic horizons and moved his chosen idiom into new realms. Illuminating and multi-layered, The Amazing Bud Powell centralizes Powell’s contributions as it details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness.
Nate Sloan: This book began as your dissertation. What drew you to Powell at that time?
Guthrie Ramsey: I had had an interest in Bud Powell as a performing pianist. You come up with your list of musicians that you want to emulate, and Powell was one of them. When I matriculated to the University of Michigan and began this life as a scholar I really didn’t know what I wanted to work on, but at that time jazz was a viable subject for a dissertation at Michigan because of an eminent scholar of American music, Richard Crawford, and at that point he had advised the dissertation of Mark Tucker on Duke Ellington, Jeffrey Magee on Fletcher Henderson, Jeff Taylor on Earl “Fatha” Hines; [laughs] and I guess I was continuing in that tradition of jazz pianists being examined under Rich Crawford.
NS: What made you feel like this was the time now, in 2014, to turn this into a book?
GR: I wrote another book before this one, Race Music: Black Culture from Bebop to Hip Hop, and that is more expansive than jazz; it takes blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and hip hop, and I wanted to produce that book first because as a young scholar I wanted to build a reputation on a breadth of popular music styles instead of one. When I moved back to Bud Powell I believe I had learned a lot more about what would make it a stronger book by that time and so when I returned to him l I just felt like I had more chops to deal with all the issues that his life entails.
NS: I find it refreshing that your book is not just a chronology, but an assessment of who this figure was and what his importance was. One thing that’s powerful about your writing is that it doesn’t avoid Powell’s mental illness, a significant part of his career. Did you have any precedents for writing about jazz and mental illness?
GR: I relied on the research of other people who had written about mental illness more generally in the African American male population. What I learned from dealing with Powell is that you have to approach the subject both realistically and sensitively. You have to think about what it means for a person who happens to be young and black at midcentury, what it means to be both somewhat disabled psychologically and yet, at the same time, to believe that the music you play and write was your main mode of communicating what that meant. I tried to treat him not only as a working musician, as a laborer in the culture industry, but to think about the fact that he had a family, he had personal relationships, he had colleagues. I wanted to show how he interacted with them in the context of being a hugely talented musician, and someone who had to live a life being somewhat impaired.
NS: Reading your book got me thinking: do you hear references to his mental instability in his musical output, whether in the music itself, or even in the song titles, like “Un Poco Loco,” or “Dance of the Infidels,” or “Wail.” I wonder if you read those as references to his condition.
GR: Well, I’m not sure who titled pieces. Sometimes the titles come from other people. I think they were meant to signify that [Powell’s mental illness], but I typically tried to think about what the music is doing structurally and how that signifies in the world, and using the titles of songs only as a departure or some useful reference for listeners who are reviving the music. I don’t see it necessarily all the time or unilaterally as a prompt from the musician him or herself.
NS: Could those titles be interpreted as a marketing tool? Because some of his song titles are strikingly different from those of his colleagues.
GR: I think about it as more of an introspection, and as someone who was perhaps deeply philosophical. That’s what I personally get from the music, and I certainly wrote from my own interpretive stance: I think is he is person who had to learn how to think because to he had to interact with a world that was not always kind to him, not always understanding or patient with him.
NS: It’s shocking to read about his treatment at the hands of psychiatric institutions. I couldn’t help but think as I was reading: if he hadn’t been black, would his treatment have been different? Would the reception of his fractured genius have been different?
GR: I think once you look at the social evidence and the fact that he was living under Jim Crow; this was at a moment when things were taking a change. But, it is what it was [laughs]. In terms of whether a non-black person would have been treated differently, I had to depend on others’ research; who talked about the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia among white middle class women. The diagnoses tended to move around to different demographics, different populations at different historical moments. So not taking the term schizophrenic as being a stable one, but one that means different things at different times for different people.
NS: There’s an aspect of the book that I found very interesting, which was learning of Powell’s classical education and his abiding interest in classical music. I wonder if you hear a classical influence on his compositions, or his improvisatory technique?
GR: Yes, I do. I think that while there are lots of ways to gain technical facility on a instrument, the musicians like Powell who did study Western art music and piano literature, I personally hear—even in his articulation, the sweeping grandeur of some of his statements—much derived from that training. Not only from that training, but also how he was able to couple with, and play with, the popular styles of the time. I really see it as being an amalgamation of trainings, let’s call it.
NS: Can you expand on his friendship with, and his mentorship by, Thelonius Monk? I wonder if you detect an influence of Monk on Powell, or maybe even vice versa.
GR: I certainly hear the influence join from Monk to Powell, because I think of Thelonius Monk as being a master of harmony, and that he was able to take the language of popular music of his moment and infuse it with an air of experimentalism. I look at Monk as the same thing with blues based culture as was Powell with the bebop language: that he had to a certain degree inherited, and to a certain degree helped codify. I definitely hear it on the level of harmonic expression, the influence on Powell from Monk.
NS: I totally see that. It’s fascinating to read this book and see him not only interacting with Monk but with Tatum himself, and there’s that amazing anecdote about him and Tatum getting into a cutting contest and Powell proving he can use his left hand by only playing with it the next night, and even maiming his right. I mean, this sense of competition and one-upmanship is kind of stunning, and you describe it as Powell taking it further than anyone else.
GR: [Laughs]. I’ll say.
NS: To the point that he’s disturbing his friends and manager.
GR: Well, what I think we can concentrate on is that this shows where this heroic, masculinist, virtuosic display, if left unchecked, where it can go. And particularly in the hands of someone who has a proven track record of having some emotional and psychological instability.
NS: One thing I find really compelling about Powell’s trio records is his interplay with his drummers, especially, and I’m curious if in your research you found that there was one drummer in particular that he really liked working with, was there a whole stable of drummers who he enjoyed playing with?
GR: There are not many records of Bud Powell’s words out there, that I know of. I know that there were musicians who were particularly sensitive to him, like Max Roach, first and foremost, and throughout his life there was an empathy between them, not just musically but interpersonally. I think that tends to be true with musicians who knew Bud Powell before he had all his struggles and developed all of these issues, and I sense from them some kind of perfection around him, that he was—and this is what I really wanted to come across in the book—is how much his colleagues really cared about him, and how hard it was on him and all his family members when he started having all these issues and troubles, and I look at whatever they were doing on the bandstand as how they felt about him when they weren’t playing music. I also know that there were musicians who claimed—for instance, George Duvivier—that he did not know Bud Powell at all but just had an extended gig with him. That he was unknowable. That, in fact, his personal demeanor was not interactive with everybody.
NS: Thinking about the larger continuum of this music, I wonder how you see Powell’s influence on 21st-century jazz musicians. Is he someone who is still studied in jazz institutions? Are there specific pianists working today who are directly inspired by his craft?
GR: I hear at least 99% percent of the realm of what we call jazz piano today as influenced by Bud Powell’s centering of the pianist in this avant-garde experimental musical culture of the mid-20th-century, and how he’s on par with what would be expected of a saxophonist or a trumpeter in the context of those small bebop ensembles. And I feel that influence even today.
NS: In the first few chapters of your book you paint a narrative of bebop that beautifully complicates the narrative sometimes put forth in a very facile and reductive way in textbooks. I’d love to hear you talk for a second about how your understanding of Powell’s life and work helps give us a better understanding of the bebop movement.
GR: I think the movement—since we’re calling it that, I kind of inherited that word—I’d like to have more nuanced pictures of the musicians who contributed to this style of music. They led complex personal and professional lives, they were individuals. Some had longer lives than others; some were able to successfully deal with the underside of the jazz life, able to craft a living in an industry that was stacked against your well-being, able to deal with the challenges of trying to be an artist in a Jim Crow society that would have preferred you be a shoeshiner. A lot of different discourses that I’m hoping to illuminate in the book are about who these musicians were, what their aspirations were, how many obstacles there were to them in creating the creative life that they wanted to have. And then, ultimately, I want to talk about it as a story of victory, of creative victory, among harsh circumstances. We want to have our masterpieces without the messiness of the everyday lives that those masterpieces represent, and I suppose what I wanted to achieve in this book is to show how we can be both enamored of what they created but then also respect the process they went through to create it.
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania. A widely published writer, he is the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003). It was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. His next book, Who Hears Here?: Essays on Black Music History and Society, a mid-career collection of his essays is also forthcoming. He was recipient of the Lowens Award from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic in 2001.
Nate Sloan is a PhD candidate in musicology at Stanford University, writing a dissertation on the Cotton Club. His research interests include jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and urban geography. He is an Associate Professor at the California Jazz Conservatory. As a composer, he has written music and lyrics for two musicals. Recently, he scored the film Slomo, which won Best Short Documentary at SXSW 2013 and was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. He is also one-half of the guerrilla theater production, The Gideon and Hubcap Show, which performs exclusively in living rooms.