Here’s a clip of tragic yet innovative jazz pianist Bud Powell with his “Cleopatra’s Dream”. The tragic was originally featured on the 1958 The Scene Changes album, the last record Powell would record on the Blue Note Label.
[Update: Since this post was written, the above clip has been removed. But, you can listen to ‘Cleopatra’s Dream’ here]
Bud Powell was an enormous force in jazz in the post-swing era, making a name for himself primarily as a contemporary of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as one of the key players in be-bop. He had the ability of playing single note solos just as quickly and creatively as any solo either Parker or Gillespie could lay down on their horns, while also changing the rules with the left hand in terms of chording.
Where in the past the piano was looked upon as something of an anchor for the chords of a piece the rest of the band is playing, Powell used the left hand to ‘quote’ the chords intermittently, rather than playing them constantly. He effectively made the piano more than an accompaniment to soloing instruments. He made it into a pure soloing instrument itself. Along with fellow pianist and friend Thelonius Monk’s innovations with harmony, Powell’s technique would influence pretty much every post-Swing jazz pianist, making Powell something of an architect of modern jazz.
But Powell was a troubled man, with problems with alcohol and drugs. Even small amounts of intoxicants would bring out Powell’s dark side, perhaps due to his clinical mental instability. In 1945, he took a beating in a racially motivated incident, which is theorized to have exacerbated his mental problems which plagued him for the rest of his life. Powell would check in and out of mental institutions regularly from the late 40s until the end of his life. And although his talent was enormous, it is argued by many that there is a notable decline in quality by the end of the 1950s, a result of his personal deterioration.
In 1959, Powell moved to Paris where there was a vital jazz scene. Powell would perform live and record there for five years. While in France, he met Francis Paudras, a fan, who eventually came to be a close friend and protector. When visiting Powell in a Parisian mental hospital, Paudras decided to take Powell into his own home, and to personally help get the ailing musician back on his feet. The two lived together for two years, with Powell using the home as a base for recording and composing, two activities denied to him while he was in hospital. It has been argued that Paudras’ intervention most likely extended Powell’s life.
The two returned to New York in 1964, with the intent that their stay there would be temporary. It was hoped that Powell could re-establish himself as a name and musical force in New York, which remained to be an important center for jazz. And upon such a return to the public eye in New York, the two could return to their idyllic life in France. Yet, Powell would remain in the States, having contracted tuberculosis and being plagued once again with the same erratic behaviour for which he’d been hospitalized so many times before.
Powell died in hospital in 1966.
For more music and information, check out the Bud Powell MySpace Page.