Jazz Birthdays: Bud Powell (1924) and Red Rodney (1927)

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Before Bud Powell, there was jazz piano. After Bud Powell, there was modern jazz piano. This didn’t stop police from beating him up.

Bud suffered a severe head beating by police. This beating affected him permanently. One account says that the police turned on him as he spoke up against their harassment of another jazz great, Thelonious Monk. This appears in a biography of Thelonious Monk: “…the police stormed the club and went after Monk. He refused to show his identification, and was forcibly arrested. A fan barred the door and challenged the officers. They tried to push him aside, but he wouldn’t budge. ‘Stop,’ he yelled. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re mistreating the greatest pianist in the world!’ At this point the nightstick came down on his head like a lightening bolt. The young fan was Monk’s best friend, Bud Powell.”

Another account from Dexter Gordon says that the Pennsylvania Railroad police charged him with being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest. We know that after this Powell was committed to a psychiatric facility where the “psychiatrists refused to believe that he was a pianist and composer and diagnosed him with ‘delusions of grandeur’ and put him in a straitjacket. He was electroshocked and drugged…” Separately, Charlie Parker was also subjected to psychotropic drugs and narrowly escaped electroshock treatment when a doctor recognized it would destroy his creative ability.

Like Bird and Diz, Powell was a musical genius, a creator and an early practitioner of bop. Above all, he was a maker of beautiful sounds. He is known for his long and fast, horn-like, right hand melodic improvisations, as contrasted with an arpeggio manner, while using his left hand for bass lines, fills, and rhythmic emphasis in a modernized stride manner. His ballad style is lush. The sound of his piano is often mellow and intimate, at other times in Monkish moods it is percussive. When he is not using single-note right hand lines, his chord choices give a distinctive sound that is full, warm and satisfying. In many of his tracks, a daring orginality of conception and beauty shine forth. Powell’s influence on jazz pianists who followed him is profound. I’ve chosen a live track from a 1950 appearance at Birdland of Bird, Fats Navarro and Bud whose solo starts at 4:23.

Notably talented bop trumpeter Red Rodney played with Charlie Parker’s quintet for three years. He has some remarkable reminiscences about Bird in this short video. Rodney, like many musicians of his time, had drug problems and these sometimes became police and prison problems. Eventually, he put these behind him. In 1991, he played better than ever in this selection “In Case of Fire”.

ADDENDUM: I have the following anecdote via a musician who knew George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas. Big Nick related to him that “on several occasions he had booked Bud Powell to play some local gigs with his group. The problem was, they had to sneak him out of Bellevue to play the jobs, then sneak him back in when they were over!” (Bellevue was Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.)


4:36 am on September 27, 2012