Bud Powell was one of the greatest pianists in jazz history. He was right up there with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as an innovator of bebop, and influenced just about every pianist who came after him. However, a few years ago I was shocked to hear the music on his album, Bud Plays Bird, a tribute to Charlie Parker. On the CD, Powell recorded tunes that he had performed with Parker countless times, but to me the music sounded lifeless and dull. In fact, after one hearing, I walked over to a trash can with the intent of throwing the CD out. But something kept me from doing so. I don’t know why, but I kept bringing the music out for occasional listenings, and sure enough, grew to love his performance, which is from the mid-1950’s.
What’s going on here? Most jazz listeners and critics will tell you that Bud made his best recordings early in his career, from about 1949-53, and then deteriorated. Certainly there’s some truth to this, and it’s well-documented that Powell became increasingly unstable, both mentally and emotionally, as he got older. He could be morose and incoherent, even on the bandstand. Some of this can be traced to beatings by police and electroshock therapy while in psychiatric wards.
His best early recordings, such as those made for the Verve and Blue Note labels, show lightning fast reflexes, a keen musical imagination, and extraordinary pianistic technique. These qualities are subdued in much of his later work, which doesn’t have quite the same musical spark as the earlier recordings.
So why do I love to listen to those very same recordings that so many musicians have denigrated over the years? Well, for one, they sound so good, but not necessarily on first hearing! There’s a certain ‘lived-in’ quality that I feel began to come out more and more in Powell’s playing as he got older. It’s true that his later solos don’t have the same musical shape and construction as his ‘golden period’ improvisations have, but there’s a relaxed flow from phrase to phrase that became increasingly prominent over the years. He’s not trying to ‘prove himself’ any more. He’s playing because he wants to, and it comes from his life, his way of being.
Charlie Parker famously said that, “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your feelings, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” I’m not saying that Powell needed to suffer the way he did in order to deepen and mature, but his later playing seems to accept its limitations and express itself in a completely natural way. Like he’s breathing through the instrument.
Of course young jazz musicians should continue to study and emulate Powell’s playing, and for this his earlier recordings are an unparalleled source of inspiration. But maybe we can also look to Powell’s later work. Not just as a lessened version of his glory, but as a model of someone expressing who they are. After all, isn’t this an artist’s highest goal?
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