Remembering Harlem's Finest: Bud Powell

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If you ever want to hear a piano laugh, listen to Bud Powell. And when you want to hear that same piano get deeply sentimental or sound like its catching fire, stick with Bud Powell.

Born in Manhattan in 1924, Bud Powell was the heir to ragtime and stride pianists Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines. He was also the pianist who, along with Thelonious Monk, brought bebop’s dialect to his instrument, creating a style of playing that is as essential to jazz as all the stories and legends that surround it.

Ellington said: “Bud is a genuine genius.”

Dizzy said: “Bud laid down the basis of modern jazz piano.”

And his protégé and mentor Thelonious Monk said: “No one could play like Bud; too difficult, too quick, incredible.”

Bud Powell was born Earl Rudolph Powell on September 27, 1924 in Harlem. His father and both of his brothers played instruments, as did his grandfather. By age 10, after having spent five years studying classic composers like Beethoven, Bach and Chopin, as well as Art Tatum and Fats Waller, young Powell began playing private gigs in his neighborhood. By high school, music had lured Powell away from the classroom and into the club scene, where he played in a band with his older brothers and shortly thereafter joined other bebop innovators in venues such as the Chicken Coop and Mintons Playhouse in Harlem.

It was in Harlem in the early 1940s that Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were inventing bebop. These 20-somethings were creating a musical dialect that was a response to the previous jazz craze, swing. But this new language wasn’t meant for dancing or as background music. It was chamber music that required active listening and demanded that its listener do so in silence. Bebop was the antithesis to swing, and required lightning speed virtuosity, a quick-witted, complex harmonic vocabulary and an ability to quote musical phrases from a wide array of sources, genres and cultures. Powell was a major player in this movement and he accomplished what other pianists hadn’t dared attempt. Powell brought the saxophone virtuosity of Charlie Parker to the keyboard and evolved the stride pianist technique into a new modern style. A style that is still essential to contemporary jazz piano.

Powell was now beginning to make a name for himself on the bandstand and in recording studios. But then tragedy struck. His friend, Francis Paudras, and others have told this story: Thelonious Monk was playing a gig in Philadelphia. Powell was also in Philly that night. Powell went to hear Monk play and there was a police raid. As the police were dragging Monk out of the club, Powell yells out “Stop that man, you don’t know what you’re doing, the guy you’re pushing around just happens to be the world's greatest pianist.” Monk told that story too, and throughout his life felt that Powell took a beating that night that was meant for him. In honor of that night, Monk composed “In Walked Bud.” And there have been many others who’ve written tunes in honor of Powell. Powell never fully recovered from the blows he took to the head that night. He was 20 years old at the time and for the remainder of his life he took pain killers, drank heavily, used narcotics and spent time in and out of mental facilities. In the early 1950s he spent a year and a half in a psychiatric hospital and most agree that was the turning point in his career.

His music never recovered from that ordeal either. After his release, Powell continued to record but moved to Paris in 1959, perhaps the biggest year in jazz history. Davis recorded Kind of Blue that year, Coltrane recorded Giant Steps and Billie Holiday and Lester Young passed away. After contracting tuberculosis, Powell returned to New York and gave a hugely successful concert at Birdland in 1964. After the performance at Birdland, he started drinking heavily and played only two more public concerts.

Bud Powell died in July 1966 but left behind more than 50 recordings, many compositions that have become standards and a piano style that is the bedrock of contemporary piano technique.