Though Bud Powell is one of the most legendary names in Jazz and Blue Note history, I have purposely refrained from writing about him, until now. I was hesitant because I wanted to wait until I was in the right frame of mind when I tackled such a beautifully tragic genius. My words may never be able to do justice to one of the greatest musicians America ever saw, and my words could never properly express all the adversity and anguish that was Bud's life. Bud's limber playing belies the dysphoria that permeated his existence up until his death in 1966. It was also hard to choose a Bud recording, but eventually I settled on The Scene Changes for a few reasons. First off, it is the Powell record I reach for the most, I could listen to Bud, Paul Chambers, and Art Taylor shuffle and glide for days. Then there is the fact that this would be Bud's last release for Blue Note, recorded in 1959, a very tumultuous year for the man. Then there is the cover photograph by Francis Wolff. Bud looks pained, deep in thought as his hands and mind try to conspire to wrangle the right notes from the keys. Many people thought Bud's playing was slipping at this point as he battled severe mental illness, but I don't hear it. If this is Bud's slop, then even on his worst days, the man played circles around everyone else. There is a child who peers from the darkness and stares at the camera, it is somewhat haunting. Does the child represent an innocence that has eluded Powell, or is this just the next generation taking what Bud laid out and carrying it into the future of Jazz? Or perhaps this is just one of the musician's children, brought into the studio for lack of childcare, and Wolff just saw a great photo op and snapped it off. Whatever the case, it is a powerful image, especially considering what we know about Bud Powell's struggle in life.
At a very young age, Bud was transcribing and building upon the compositions of Art Tatum and Fats Waller, he took lessons from Thelonious Monk and soon had moved his skill set beyond anyone playing jazz piano at the time. Monk was not a man of pettiness or jealousy and was genuinely excited to show this unsung genius to the cats down at Minton's. Soon Bud was recording with giants like Dexter Gordon, JJ Johnson, and Fats Navarro. The young player had a knack for incredibly expressive and fast runs, and while he didn't always execute perfectly, the melodic note choice and phrasing blew minds. Some folks were skeptics and when Art Tatum (Bud's hero) questioned Bud's left hand technique as "lazy," Bud just soloed with his left hand proving that his technique was thought out, not lazy at all, and that ultimately Tatum was just a dick.
In 1945 Powell was severely beaten by a cop, many close to Bud said he was never the same after. In 1947 Powell led his first session with a trio comprised of Bud, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. The dodgy Deluxe label funded the session but went belly up before the record was pressed. The session was released two years later by the Roost label as The Bud Powell Trio. Later in '47 Bud entered the Creedmor Psychiatric Center in Queens. He stayed for one year where he received electroshock treatment. Some speculate that this contributed greatly to Powell's failing ability as a musician. Upon his release Bud Powell's reputation as a troubled man and an extremely volatile drunk kept him fairly isolated, though he found friendship in two younger musicians, Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins. Powell's endorsement of McLean's oddball playing led Miles Davis to hire McLean and launched the careers of one of my personal favorite saxophonists.
The 1950's saw Bud in and out of mental hospitals and jail cells. Eventually he was released into the custody of Birdland Nightclub owner Oscar Goodstein. While under the watchful eye of Goodstein and the milky blanket of Largactil, taken for Schizophrenia, Bud continued to write and compose, but the psych meds and the crippling ennui of being in Oscar's apartment was starting to affect Bud's mind and playing even more severely than in the past. To make matters worse, Bud's brother Richie was killed in the same car accident that took the life of beloved trumpeter Clifford Brown. In 1959 Powell moved to France with a childhood friend turned business manager. This friend exploited Bud's renown, kept him doped up, and extorted money from the ailing genius. However, in France Bud managed to participate in some pretty amazing sessions with Kenny Clarke. When Dexter Gordon was recording the session that would become his Our Man in Paris album, Powell was asked to sit in for Kenny Drew who was stuck in Denmark. Pretty soon, all involved in the session became abundantly clear that Powell wasn't right. Bud couldn't learn new material at this point and thankfully the album was standards, songs Bud had played a million times before, but his behavior was erratic even if his playing was pretty remarkable. Bud returned to New York and in 1965 played only two live dates: one at Carnegie Hall and the other a tribute to Charlie Parker, by all accounts these performances were disastrous. In 1966 Bud's mental and physical state deteriorated further, he had Tuberculosis, was living alone, and simply not taking care of himself. In July of that same year Bud died.
Now I can tell you first hand that watching mental illness overtake a beautiful, fertile mind is about the worst thing to see unfold. Watching someone you love and admire struggle and fall deeper into into irrationality and slip further away from you is a motherfucker. I have seen photos from the session that yielded The Scene Changes, and you can see it in the faces of the others around Powell, they are worn down and deeply distressed. Perhaps this is why this album so moves me, even though the material is spry and peppy, there is a darkness, a black cloud that rolls over the entire record, it is the sound of the end. It's quite disheartening to imagine what sort of legacy Bud Powell might have left behind if he had not spent a third of his life in institutions. I think about it every time I hear his mastery of the keys, I think about it every time I am in New York City or Paris, I imagine Bud walking the same streets, his mind racing, his fingers tapping manically inside his coat pockets. Then I put on The Scene Changes or Time Waits, or Bud!, and I listen.