This excerpt, from chapter four, picks up Powell’s story after his appearance as a sideman on a number of modern-jazz record dates in 1946. (The e-book includes extensive, scholarly endnotes—though those pertaining to what follows are not available at this website.)
A contrast will be seen between this first episode, which includes Thelonious Monk and others, exchanging ideas informally, and a later one, which narrates the recording session that was led by Charlie Parker.
The excerpt ends with some musing on Powell’s striving for fame in this period.
Please respect this writing by crediting it when reproducing it.
The parallel world, of the times when musicians just hung out together and shared musical ideas, was a much larger one than that in which the records were made or the nightclub gigs took place. In Powell’s universe of music thought, felt, and created, the record dates especially were discrete, even distant objects. They are seen in closeup today because they were preserved while the more frequent, intimate occurrences have moved far off, undetected as they were by technological device.
There were countless nights that Powell spent revolving around close colleagues and friends—and this was where creativity was in constant if elliptical motion. Of course in this closed system, when he was available, Powell was in orbit around Monk, who shone on him, and on everyone else, such intelligence that everyone tilted towards his light.
A favorite refuge where this kind of creative exchange took place was in the Bronx, at the well-appointed railroad apartment of Fern Daly. She was a quiet, attractive, aspiring singer who was married to an older, well-off man. He never appeared in the far room of their apartment, a big living room where she had put a baby grand piano. In fact, she had three children, but they never appeared in the back room, either. The door to the room was always shut; the place was strictly for music.
The Daly residence was a salon for modern ideas. The room even had its own exit, should guests need to enter or leave quickly or unnoticed. Daly loved to greet musicians in silk clothes and make them comfortable, too. She was acquainted with Gillespie, though she preferred her Bronx neighborhood to the more commercial Fifty-second Street scene. Musicians felt safe at Daly’s to be themselves, to get high, and to stay as long as they wanted.
Musicians who turned up understood that nearest to Monk in this group were Elmo Hope and Powell. There was as well a fourth pianist with new ideas, Al Walker, a shy Bronx resident who belonged in their musical company but didn’t stick with music, and who later made a living repairing television sets.
The piano chair constantly rotated amongst these four: As soon as Hope finished playing, Powell jumped up to play Hope’s idea but put his stamp on it. Walker got a taste after that, and then maybe Monk took the piano and said with his playing: Well, I do it this way. But there was no cutting, no challenging. “Guys played for love; beautiful scene,” says Walker. “You could play there all night. There was a catholic church next door. One time they asked us to tone it down. But another time the priest, [a Frenchman named Bouchier,] came up to listen. And he played a little, too.”
Walker says: “You had to pick up things from Thelonious—he didn’t show them. He experimented a lot with quarter-tones and half-tones. Bent notes. You could learn a lot from him if you really listened. But he didn’t show you.” Monk’s refusal to show followed from his maxim, that if a musician couldn’t hear what Monk was doing, how was he going to play it? Monk had no interest in explaining to those who’d demonstrated they hadn’t been listening (or couldn’t hear).
Powell, too, wasn’t about showing anyone there how he played, Walker says. “He put on an exhibition, play[ed] real fast. But he always did that: He’d play so fast you’d think he was showin’ off, but he’s only [playing as his ideas dictate].”
Walker is adamant about correcting a longheld view of Powell:
I never thought that Bud was crazy. Never . . . . Just because he put on an act? Do you think that Monk was crazy? No? Well, Bud used to do the same things that Monk did. That used to be the thing with that little group of musicians, to act crazy. They were actors, good actors. When they had to give respect, they could switch it on [and] turn off the craziness.
Walker hosted some similarly informal sessions, but he admits that Daly’s piano was much better than his and was therefore the more popular place to experiment. Drugs were cool at Daly’s, though he says that in deference to her and her children, no heroin was done there. In fact, Monk, Hope, and Powell wouldn’t shoot heroin at Walker’s place, either, in part because they hadn’t the luxury there of a secluded room for that and for the piano.
Walker is still willing to have his talent demeaned in order not to be associated with the other three and their drug use too closely, as much as he admired them. Many musicians are clear about this divide in their ranks: Those that got involved with narcotics and those that didn’t. On the one hand these survivors say with some regret that they were made to feel square, and might have lost out on gigs, because they wouldn’t do what the others did; on the other hand they say that as a matter of pride they wanted no part of it. Walker says: “You couldn’t enter their world unless you were willing to do what they did.”
Walker suggests that Powell more than Monk or Hope had two sides to him. One was the quiet genius. But the other side he didn’t like: “You never knew how he’d be [from moment to moment].” He won’t say that Powell was mean—but he won’t say that he had the kind heart that Monk had. Once, when Powell needed money to score drugs, he stole some shirts from Walker in order to sell them. Monk, Walker says, never did that. No matter how much he needed to score, he had too much pride to steal.
Yet the connection between obsessive, unpredictable behavior and heroin use—as opposed to the desperation exhibited in trying to obtain the drug—can’t be explained facilely. Powell, admitted his frequent bassist, Curly Russell, didn’t behave as expected when he was on heroin: “That’s a funny thing about him. Bud used drugs, but he had himself under control. But the minute he drank alcohol, he’s in trouble. . . . [H]e became belligerent behind alcohol.”
But more often, Walker says, Powell’s energy was unleashed with respect to his music—or even to someone else’s: “He’d be sitting in your house, playing your piano, and somebody would come in, saying: ‘I was just [up the street], and I heard this really good pianist.’ And Bud would jump up, ready to leave. He couldn’t stand the idea that anybody could play better than him.”
Bassist Julian Euell was just a teenager when he started showing up at Daly’s salon. To him, Daly, a bit older than he, was exotic; he called her Dragon Lady. He was part of what he calls the second wave of bebop players—a group that included tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins at times, though he was more advanced musically than the others; alto saxophonist Jackie McLean; and pianist Walter Bishop. They were there just to learn what the masters were doing. Euell says: “No one played the bass [or any other instrument]. It was a pianists’ salon. I was just a bass-holder in those days, [anyway]—I had no idea what they were doing.” 1
There was as well a mystique, a nonmusical language that the pianists used, Euell says. He confirms what Walker says, that Monk, Hope, and Powell shared gestures.
At the time the guys had a communicating style, where they would [just] suggest things. They had certain body movements, sign language, codes . . . . A lot of people emulated Thelonious’s language, his style. The strange movements, [suddenly jumping up from the piano], the mysterioso stuff . . . we all started doing it. We started saying [cryptic] things, just a word or two, then rearing back and saying: “Ya dig?” It was like theater.
Euell, sitting on the floor of this salon in awe of these geniuses, was an outsider—not only looking in but up at these pianist–creators. He was jealous not only of their enormous individual techniques but of their intense yet noncompetitive camaraderie. They never talked there of gigs that they were hoping for; there was no talk of one “cutting” another (pace the Harlem-piano tradition of the previous generation, of all-night contests in bars or apartments). To the younger players such as Euell, who listened and watched, it was as if they had been allowed to sit in on a faculty meeting of top professors. These masters were “pushing out, new ideas, a new style . . . and they knew it. They knew they were on to something . . . .”
As uncompetitive as Monk, Hope, and Powell were, their superior talent couldn’t but put them on a higher level. Even among pianists, their superiority was felt. Pianist Art Simmons noticed this, years later, when he and some other musicians tried to have a casual conversation with Powell: “He was with you but then he wasn’t with you. He wasn’t spacing out . . . but he was a genius, he was on another level. [When we spoke of music] he may have been laughing at us, at some of the things that we said about it.”
Where the conversation was confined to playing the piano and exchanges
of gestures, such as went on at Daly’s, however, there was no laughing—not
of the cruel kind, anyway. There, words didn’t matter. It was Monk
who, as first among equals in this nonverbal world, provided the daring.
He did things that he knew to be different, but he did them because he knew
what he was doing. And that enabled the others, starting with Hope and Powell,
first to dare as Monk did, then to dare on their own.
1 Walker says that occasionally a bass was played, and that sometimes Little Benny Harris pulled out his trumpet. Though Harris was a great reader, he was also, at this time, a terrific improviser. Though Walker adds: “Playing real bebop trumpet was very hard; he [mostly] played legato.”
By 1947 there was such diversity emerging in music that bebop revolution, the catch phrase of the time (and since), couldn’t come near categorizing it. The following diverse talents were working or trying to get an outlet for their ideas: Tadd Dameron, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and George Russell, among those making major contributions as arranger–composers; and Joe Albany, Erroll Garner, Al Haig, Sadik Hakim, Elmo Hope, John Lewis, Herbie Nichols, George Shearing, and Lennie Tristano, among those known primarily as pianists. Then there were such diverse big bands as those of Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Boyd Raeburn, and Claude Thornhill. These musicians not only brought their various backgrounds to their playing but sought disparate influences, many of which were outside jazz altogether—further increasing the permutations of what was being created. Many of these artists were listening to Bartók, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Russell wrote a piece, “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” (which got recorded in ’49), which was only one way that two of many disparate worlds could meet.
When the January 1947 Metronome released its annual readers’-poll results, to reflect the achievements in jazz of ’46, Bud Powell placed twenty-ninth in the piano category. Nat “King” Cole came in first, Teddy Wilson finished second, and Art Tatum was third. Although twenty-ninth wasn’t a very good showing for the performer whom musicians already knew had dazzling technique and a slew of ideas for original compositions, only two bebop pianists finished ahead of him. Haig placed fifteenth, and Tristano, who had an original conception that cognoscenti understood as a radical departure even from bebop, finished seventeenth. (Charlie Parker, according to the fans, had yet to establish his clear dominance on his instrument, finishing third to Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith; in fact, the only bebop player to place first in his category was Gillespie.)
The argot and some of the affectations of bebop were finding their way into select jazz fans’ speech and gestures, but when the masses voted, they still preferred the established swing stars.
Powell had been appearing live in a group that called itself Jazz in Be-Bop
on Sunday afternoons at Club Sudan (at 640 Lenox, at 142nd Street, on the
site of one of the former incarnations of Cotton Club) from at least December
1946. Rudy Williams and Artie Phipps joined this crusading group in early
’47. It appeared at Small’s Paradise for its Blue Monday Jam
in early March, and then it began a short tour of one-nighters on the East
Coast. Little Benny Harris was in the band for the tour.2
2 Powell played, a little earlier, in another combo that charged itself with championing bebop. Called Three Bips and a Bop, and led by comic singer Babs Gonzales—whose wordless vocals mimicked the rhythmic and tonal experiments of the horn instrumentalists—their monicker claimed to be presenting Bop for the People. Powell played in this group at such venues as Minton's Play House, where it was sometimes joined by tap dancer Baby Laurence. By the time that it recorded, though, Powell had been replaced by Tadd Dameron.
Before it left on the tour, Jazz in Be-bop appeared at Club Sudan as Bud Powell Sextet. The date was March 16, and it was one of the first professional appearances that Powell made as the leader of a combo. (While becoming known among some of the high-profile musicians who played on Fifty-second Street, his work there was exclusively as a sideman.) The evening’s groups included a battle of the saxes (tenors Eddie Davis and Morris Lane), as well as a combo that was led by Dinah Washington and one by Joe Guy. But Powell’s group (Harris, Williams, Steve Pulliam on trombone, Phipps, and Charlie Simon on drums) got equal billing. Powell had, though, already had a few brief engagements, at small venues, in Harlem as a solo act. By now he had gotten others to call him the Earl of Harlem, which got him attention but which many musicians found obnoxious.
On one such solo occasion in 1946, the last year that Club Baron operated (at 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue), Powell gave an afternoon recital. Julian Euell played opposite in a combo.
Bud took the microphone and asked: “Where are all the people?!” The bandstand was kind of high, and I remember [looking up at] Bud saying: “There should be an airplane in the sky, writing: BUD POWELL IS APPEARING AT THE CLUB BARON!” Yeah, people would laugh, but [they] also were saying: “Oh, God . . . .”
He would do audacious stuff like that. . . . He was saying: “Where’s my audience? Don’t they know that I’m here?” People would just blow it off, say that he was a little far out.
* * * *
Bud Powell’s appearance in a recording studio on May 8, 1947 was his first for eight months, and his only one in the studio in that year. It was done, though, for Charlie Parker, and it remained the only recording date that the two did together. The session was the chance that Powell had missed in November ’45—and for Savoy, the small label that was bebop’s champion.
Bebop had already been recorded, for Victor, a major label. But it was Savoy that took the risk, repeatedly, to gather young musicians who were looking to do something new with their art—although the recording process as Savoy practiced it was a compromise development.
The established record companies, which predated the war, weren’t interested in risking capital on a new music in 1945, especially one that had at first no champions in the music press. The times did, however, enable a number of people who wanted to start record labels to operate. Some of them had little concern with what the artists were trying to do; their only concern was with keeping the musicians within the union-imposed three-hour studio limit, so that there would be no overtime costs. More important, these producers didn’t want to pay the royalties that were required when artists recorded already copyrighted songs. (The copyright laws dictated that one cent of every record sold was paid to the composer, and one cent was paid to his publisher.)
So when an adventurous composer, one who was looking to get credit for his creation, borrowed the chord changes of an established popular song, or he created a new variation on the 12-bar blues, he served both his and the company’s ends: He got credited for an original work, and no royalties had to be paid on the copyright of an existing song. This the composer did sometimes without recourse even to music paper.
Once the “new” song had been titled (often by the company, without even the artist’s input), the label offered the artist the chance to license the work through its own company, which would function as well as music publisher. In exchange, the artist got a small advance against royalties. Advance is a misnomer, as rarely did any money flow thereafter from producer to artist, regardless of how well the song sold.
Parker was the creative avatar of this kind of musical production. He “could play pretty much what he liked and get quick money up front”, as Parker scholar James Patrick wrote. Parker created off the top—sometimes not even producing as much as rough melodic sketches before entering the studio to record. In such cases he just communicated verbally to his sidemen what he wanted.
Parker returned to New York in spring 1947 after a troubled fifteen months of trying to play on the West Coast. Sadik Hakim, from the November ’45 date, said that he and Powell went to see Parker on his first day in New York. Powell was still in thrall to Parker musically but, when Parker tried to hum his new, challenging tune, a frustrated Powell suddenly broke concentration to slap him in the face. Parker grabbed Powell by the shoulders but then let him go without retaliating, laughing off the hurt.
It was one of many such documented confrontations between the two geniuses—and in nearly every one, it was Parker who eased the tension by backing down. He might have already decided to hire Powell for the upcoming Savoy date, so he wasn’t going to give the slap a second thought. (Or he just accepted that Powell couldn’t be held to the same behavior standard as were other people.)
For Miles Davis, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach, the May 8 session was the first of five crucial studio dates in 1947–48 with Parker, for Savoy and for Dial, which was another label dedicated to recording bebop. These musicians were working out their new ideas regularly at Three Deuces, Onyx and, by 1948, Royal Roost (a different kind of venue, which was thought to be “a little piece of Harlem downtown” as it had afram waiters and encouraged aframs to enter).
Parker’s sidemen were exploring not just those concepts that he had rightly been given credit for. The trumpeter, bassist, and drummer were playing constantly, with other bandleaders as well, in an experimental atmosphere of musical salugi. Davis, for one, soon led his own groups in these clubs and in rehearsals, trying other ideas that eventually led him in other directions.
Powell, on the other hand, though he had been busy in the studios and on the Street in 1946, had been much less active outside Harlem in the last half year or so. He made no record dates and appeared infrequently in the clubs. While he must have remained eager to lead his own gigs, he had to have recognized that recording for Parker was a step up, even if his vanity didn’t let him admit that to anyone.
For the May 8 date, Parker’s instincts had him choose, off the top, three original themes that were very difficult to play—among the most challenging pieces of his combo-leading career: “Donna Lee” (most likely Davis’s tune, based on the standard, “Back Home in Indiana”), the contrapuntal “Chasin’ the Bird” (based on the chords of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”), and a clever use of the blues, “Cheryl”. Powell, though, wasn’t at all thrown by the repertoire; he handled the challenge exceedingly well. And on the fourth tune of the date, a more repetitive, riff-based blues, “Buzzy”, Powell really shone.
“Donna Lee” is “one of the most perverse of bop heads, [one of] the tunes that outdo most possible improvisations on their changes”, according to academic Douglass Parker. That Davis had chosen for the first composition of his career to be recorded one that he couldn’t play was one of many ironic things that emerged about the performance. The piece had long been assumed to have been written by Charlie Parker, as he was credited as the composer on the 78.
Powell quickly finds appropriate, unobtrusive accompaniment for Parker and Davis on “Donna Lee” (even finding subtle variations in his choice of chords from take to take). He is not given much solo space on any of the takes. On the third complete take he gets his best solo but barely finishes eight bars before the ensemble returns.
Evident is his characteristic striking hard of the first note in a flurry, allowing the succeeding notes to roll off his hand.
Powell, though, steals a chance to shine on “Buzzy”—though, on the take with his best solo, he gets cut short after twelve bars (the take winds up a half-minute shorter than the first complete take). Powell also finds the beats where the horns breathe to insert jocular chord fills, which might have been taken by the others as sarcasm. He saves his most subversive accompaniment, though, for the final ensemble.
Powell managed to make himself heard on the session, though it was, Patrick surmised, “generally rough and disturbingly tense”, which had only partially to do with the Parker–Powell dynamic. In fact, Parker, excepting his September 1948 Savoy recording of “Ah-Leu-Cha”, “never again attempt[ed] such challenging thematic material at a recording session”.
Davis wrote in his autobiography that he and Roach had always preferred Powell to Duke Jordan, whom Parker had chosen for his first return engagement in New York the month before, at Three Deuces:
Bird couldn’t get [Bud,] though, because Bud and Bird didn’t get along. Bird used to go by Monk’s house and try to talk to Bud, but Bud would just sit there and not say anything to him. [. . .] Bird would beg him to join the group, and Bud would just look at him and drink. He wouldn’t even smile at Bird.
Powell’s refusal to talk to Parker cost him the chance to join the latter’s quintet when it settled in again at Three Deuces in summer 1947. But if there was any resentment in this period, it should have been Parker’s towards Powell. It was Powell who had stood up Parker at the November ’45 Savoy date. Even though Parker wasn’t the type to hold such grudges (considering his reputation for showing up), Powell’s behavior toward him was the height of self-destructiveness. Whatever he felt that Parker had done to him in the past, he could have relented here and become part of the history-making quintet. Maybe he was close to relenting when Parker stopped begging him. How differently things would have turned out if Powell had changed his mind—perhaps if Parker had asked him one more time.