The Demons of Bud Powell

Mar 19, 2015

In that bygone era when radio was king, the drama known as The Shadow was one of the best. The dulcet voice of the announcer preceded each program with the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” He then finished off the quiz with a sardonic laugh, and the clincher, “The Shadow knows.”

Leaning on that question, and invoking poetic license, we might ask another question: Why, in the early days of modern jazz, did so many devils lurk in the minds of the jazz practitioners of that era? The list of known jazz artists of that time who died due to dependence on drugs and booze is long. Some survivors prevailed and are still around; a scant few are still making music.

One talented soul who let the demons in and couldn’t shake them was pianist Bud Powell.

Many jazz greats consider him “The Charlie Parker of the Piano” because before him, the creative improvisations and lightning-fast execution on the piano had only been done on a horn—Parker’s. But running parallel with his creativity and greatness were his destructive habits, which over time robbed him of his abilities and got him into trouble with the law.

Running parallel with his creativity and greatness were his destructive habits, which over time robbed him of his abilities.

Earl “Bud” Powell was born September 27, 1924 in New York City. His grandfather learned flamenco guitar in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Powell’s father was a stride pianist, and Bud began lessons with his dad at age five. He was playing his own transcriptions of pianists Art Tatum and Fats Waller by age eight, and at 15 he was playing in his older brother William’s band. His younger brother Richie gained fame as pianist in the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet.

While still in his teens, Bud Powell played in other small bands, including that of trumpeter Cootie Williams. But even prior to joining that band, he’d met Thelonious Monk, who became a mentor. He introduced him to Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Christian, and other young stalwarts who played at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where modern jazz was born. Monk later penned a song in honor of his friendship with Powell, titled “In Walked Bud,” which became a jazz standard.

Powell persuaded Cootie Williams in 1944 to record Monk’s “’Round Midnight.” It was the first recording of that classic. Bud Powell was 20.

Late in his career, Bud Powell playing Monk’s “’Round Midnight” at the Café Montmarte, Copenhagen, 1962:

The following year may have been the beginning of his personal and musical downward spiral. In Philadelphia he was beaten about the head by a police officer and charged with being drunk and disorderly. Those who knew him say he never was the same after that beating. He became mentally unstable after the incident, and over the years his irrational behavior resulted in his admission to mental institutions.

Besides whatever physical ills he was suffering, heavy drinking was also blunting his playing. At times he was brilliant, and his playing could challenge Charlie Parker or any other modern jazz great. Herbie Hancock said of Powell, “He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano. Every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him.”

But when Powell was off, even some of his true admirers admitted that his playing was painful to hear. To add to his discontent, he became attached to a woman named Buttercup, who his friends said used him as a meal ticket, and further helped ruin his life. She moved him to Paris in 1959, where he garnered much adulation and respect.

In 1964, a Frenchman and longtime fan named Francis Paudras freed Powell from Buttercup and helped him return to New York, where he arranged for some club bookings. Powell’s ailments and drinking by then had diminished his once formidable skills, and he lasted only two more years, finally succumbing to tuberculosis, alcoholism, and malnutrition at the age of 41.

Powell had more than made his mark, and had contributed to the modern jazz songbook with “Celia” (for his daughter), “Dance of the Infidels,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Hallucinations,” and “Oblivion,” among others. The last three titles may have been literal testimonies to his suffering.

Several books chart Powell’s life and times, one of them, Glass Enclosure, by his friend Francis Paudras. Here again, a title alludes to Powell’s being consumed by—but wanting to be free of—his devilish pursuers, even though he alone had brought on some of them.

This article is from the March 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.