The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

by Guthrie P. Ramsey
The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

by Guthrie P. Ramsey

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Bud Powell was not only one of the greatest bebop pianists of all time, he stands as one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and fiercely adventurous musical minds. His expansive musicianship, riveting performances, and inventive compositions expanded the bebop idiom and pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to higher standards of performance. Yet Powell remains one of American music’s most misunderstood figures, and the story of his exceptional talent is often overshadowed by his history of alcohol abuse, mental instability, and brutalization at the hands of white authorities. In this first extended study of the social significance of Powell’s place in the American musical landscape, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. shows how the pianist expanded his own artistic horizons and moved his chosen idiom into new realms. Illuminating and multi-layered, The Amazing Bud Powell centralizes Powell’s contributions as it details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520243910
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/28/2013
Series: Music of the African Diaspora , #17
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 254
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the prize-winning Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (UC Press).

Read an Excerpt

The Amazing Bud Powell

Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

By Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-24391-0


"Cullud Boys with Beards"

Serious Black Music and the Art of Bebop

    Little cullud boys with beards
    re-bop be-bop mop and stop.

    Little cullud boys with fears,
    frantic, kick their draftee years
    into flatted fifths and flatter beers
    that at a sudden change become
    sparkling Oriental wines rich and strange ...
    Langston Hughes, "Flatted Fifths"

In her treasury of private memories, Bud Powell's daughter, Celia, recalls her father as an uncomplicated man, "content with the simple things in life, not wanting much more than a meal and to play." But in the public world where he established his fame, Powell cut a more challenging figure. His work represents, for many, a pinnacle of artistic achievement among the pantheon of brilliant jazz pianists. His relentless flow of musical ideas—their unsettling rhythmic disjunction; those explosive launches into beautifully crafted passages of push, pull, run, and riff, punctuated by the perfect landing at ferocious speeds—remains an inspiring, though intimidating, factor for pianists who come behind him. Indeed, his brilliance in the bebop idiom pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to high standards of performance that have rarely been matched. His contributions have been as germane to the modern jazz pianist's training as Czerny five-finger exercises and Bach Inventions are to that of classically trained pianists. Despite his importance to jazz, he remains one of the music's lesser-known figures. Yet he was a towering pianist who inspires awe and respect among those in the know.

As one of the select group of gifted mid-twentieth-century "cullud boys," Powell can teach us much about what made his chosen idiom such a dramatic and poignant musical statement. Here and in following chapters, I discuss some of the themes and issues—musical and otherwise—that show how Powell's bebop worked as a commercialized, racialized, gendered, and age-specific enterprise. Throughout his lifetime, jazz developed from a cultish, ethnic-infused vogue to the sound of American pop to a demanding avant-garde. Within this dynamic continuum of pedigree shifts, Powell's work can also be seen as entangled in the aesthetic legacies of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson, among others whose artistic lives helped to create a cultural space for the learning, practice, and dissemination of the art of jazz. At the same time, there are those who believe that we should retain the political edge that bebop once possessed as a stand-alone tradition. Eric Lott, for example, has lamented what he sees as the casual commercialization of a style that at one time represented the political and aesthetic avant-garde: "We need to restore the political edge to a music that has been so absorbed into the contemporary jazz language that it seems as safe as much of the current scene—the spate of jazz reissues, the deluge of 'standard' records, Bud Powell on CD—certainly an unfortunate historical irony." Bebop is, indeed, an abundant site of expressive force.

Despite Powell's brilliance as a pianist, composer, and innovator, his work remains a curious and understudied force in jazz history. Indeed, looking for Bud Powell involves a search through "cullud boys' beards and fears": it's an investigation of the meanings embedded in all manner of styles, musical and otherwise, and how all of them signified in the world. Black male musicians of the 1940s streamed self-conscious ideas about who they were in the world through their art. In the flatted fifths, rhythmic disjunction, and sheer velocity of bebop convention, we can find Bud and his peers. But we also find him (and others like him) in other forms of representation, such as photography, and even in the other kinds of art that shaped his social world, such as poetry and the visual arts. In other words, we must examine the world into which Powell walked, a world in which life and musicianship challenged the post–World War II world on many levels. When we look for Bud, we sift through many riches.


Powell's accomplishments invoke a generation of musicians whose innovations during the 1940s and 1950s are some of jazz's greatest artistic triumphs. Through them, jazz became a bona fide "Art," an expression that is considered by many to be an elitist music deserving formally trained devotees, a vigorous criticism, and a rigorous scholarship. With bebop, the accepted wisdom goes, jazz shed its populist impulses and moved up the cultural ladder. This book meditates on, among other things, this dramatic transition through the example of Powell's musical contributions.

But "Great Art-Jazz" did not just happen; it had to pay its dues. In the scholarly world, for example, jazz would need to be analyzed with tools from beyond its immediate cultural borders. Jazz needed to be imbedded into the nineteenth-century Eurocentric notion of Great Art's transcendence of the social and political "everyday," and this move was a major hurdle for this body of music. And naturalizing the shift has been achieved primarily, though not exclusively, by the acts of formal musical analysis and written criticism. Let's begin with "analysis," by which I mean the study of musical structures as applied to specific works and performances.

One of the goals of formal analysis—to expose organic unity—is a musical value in which few major jazz musicians have expressed much interest. Enter Joseph Kerman, one of musicology's progressive voices during the 1980s. This was a time when analysis of this kind came under increasing scrutiny as well as the time when the first dissertations on jazz began to appear in the field. Kerman argues that musical analysis is not a politically benign act, but "an essential adjunct to a fully articulated aesthetic value system": western art music of the common practice period. Musical analysts extended their techniques to all of the music that they valued, and eventually to jazz, as part of this book exemplifies.

At the same time, it should be understood that this brand of formal analysis, embedded as it is in nineteenth-century western European music history, has done little to raise the music's prestige among the average jazz fan. Many Powell enthusiasts, for example, have never required musical scores or scholarly treatises to validate or affirm their devotion. His recordings, together with the lore, myth, and gossip that circulated around him, have sustained his reputation as one of jazz's greatest, and indeed most mysterious, stars. Even casual knowledge of Powell and his exploits seems to anoint the jazz fan with insider, aficionado status. His work has remained important because of the extent to which jazz pianists have imitated his innovations, the scholarly analysis that it (and the work of his colleagues) has stimulated, and the devotion and awe that exists among his fans.


Powell's and his colleagues' version of serious black music has often inspired the notion that theirs was an aesthetic in opposition to crass commercialism and, I would argue, to certain aspects of art discourses as well. A recurring theme in bebop literature (one that still shapes its reception), for example, presumes that modern jazz intentionally tried to sever itself from the entertainment business, from the "jooks" and nightclubs of its origins, and from its social legacy in the black "vernacular." It is quite remarkable that such a diverse range of writers—music scholars, journalists, cultural critics—frame bebop's profile in the same way: as a challenge to a diverse set of orthodoxies.

Musicologist Frank Tirro writes, for example, that bebop musicians attempted "to create a new elite." The cultural critic Cornel West believes that "bebop musicians shunned publicity and eschewed visibility." Likewise, journalist Nelson George argues: "The bebop attitude overrode any lingering connection to the black show-business tradition that turned any cultural expression into a potentially lucrative career (though eventually that would happen to the beboppers as well). Its adherents found it a higher calling than mere entertainment." Music historian William Austin maintains that Charlie Parker's "music required for discriminating appreciation as thorough a specialized preparation as any 'classical style.' ... He stood for jazz as a fine art, knowing that this meant exclusiveness.... Thus with 'bop,' jazz met the difficulties that had bewildered critics of new serious music ever since 1910. The best work was so complex in harmony and rhythm that it sounded at first incoherent, not only to laymen but to professionals very close to it. Good work could no longer be discriminated with any speed or certainty from incompetent work." English music critic Wilfred Mellers writes that although Parker's roots in the black music tradition are evident, the "expressivity" of his rapidly paced music shares "affinities with the development in European art-music that was (contemporaneously) associated with Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono."

Writers who valued beboppers' achievements borrowed critical rhetoric from the most prestigious and status-building model available to them—the modernist strain of western art music. But where did this leave Powell and his associates? Did the rhetoric of elite modernism serve well their aspirations?

One important writer believed it did not. Martin Williams, the influential jazz critic and compiler of the landmark anthology The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, writes that Charlie Parker helped renew jazz "simply by following his own artistic impulses." Williams argues that bebop musicians made a self- conscious effort to change the social function of jazz. But he characterizes the result of this effort as a kind of "dream deferred," questioning its success because although social dancing is, for the most part, not done to modern jazz, "for a large segment of its audience it is not quite an art music or a concert music. It remains by and large still something of a barroom atmosphere music. And perhaps a failure to establish a new function and milieu for jazz was, more than anything else, the personal tragedy of the members of the bebop generation."

Williams writes in the same essay that although Parker and others "repudiated what they thought of as the grinning and eye-rolling of earlier generations of jazzmen.... [they] courted a public success and a wide following that were defined in much the same terms as the popular success of some of their predecessors." Naturally, the process of elevating bebop to this lofty new pedigree meant critically endowing the musicians themselves with artistic autonomy. But at the same time, Williams seems to recognize that jazz was not completely free from its social roots, that it seemed stuck between aesthetic discourses. So what is the truth about modern jazz's pedigree?

Bebop musicians such as Powell did represent an elite group, and my discussion of his music will show that he merits this claim. But his elite status, like the pedigree of bebop itself, is quite a complex matter. At one time the word elite described "someone elected or formally chosen"; by the end of the nineteenth century, however, the term "became virtually equivalent with [the] 'best.'" Writers have framed beboppers' achievements in this latter sense, and more specifically, as an elitism within the framework of western art music. Yet I believe it is important to show that bebop retained powerful connections to black communal values and to the commercial, popular music industry. Ultimately, I wish to show through Powell's music that any argument about bebop as fine art should take into account its dynamic relationship to art discourses, black culture, and commerce.

In order to parse this relationship, one has to move beyond the sonic. Bebop was, of course, sound, but it also embodied a look composed of the berets, goatees, and thick horn-rimmed glasses that were popular among the postwar "Museum of Modern Art set." The clothing worn by the beboppers represented an "intellectualized" adaptation of the zoot suit, the dress code for World War II–era hipsters. Photographs of bebop musicians show that many chose to chemically straighten their hair in the "conk" style popular among many urban black males in the 1940s. Along with the look came an insider language. Trumpeter Miles Davis is only one of many who recalls that early beboppers cultivated a colorful vocabulary that grew out of black slang or jive talk, a popular dialect in the jazz world during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The bebop look and language gave the popular press an image to promote (or denounce) and lent more than a dash of human interest to the scene. Both Life and Ebony magazines featured articles in the late 1940s that focused primarily on these features. These seemingly peripheral aspects of bebop culture reveal much about the music's political import. Robin D. G. Kelley argues that clothing such as the zoot suit (and variations thereof) does not carry a direct political statement in itself, but its cultural context renders it into a statement. Bebop musicians belonged to a larger underground culture of black working-class youth, in which the "zoot suit, the conk, the lindy hop, and the language of the 'hep cat' [were] signifiers of a culture of opposition among black, mostly male, youth." Such acts have traditionally allowed the construction of a collective identity that challenges dominant stereotypes and forms insularity.

Consider, for example, Miles Davis's account of Dexter Gordon coaching him in the art of "bebop hipness" in 1948. Gordon urged Davis to buy new clothes and to try to grow a moustache or a beard to affirm his affiliation with the bebop subculture—onstage and off. Davis recalls that after he had saved enough money, he purchased a big-shouldered suit that felt much too large for him. Gordon's response upon seeing Davis in the suit resembles an initiation rite: "Now you looking like something, now you hip.... You can hang with us." Bebop dress negotiated a musician's identification as an insider of bebop subculture.

Kelley connects bebop's sonic language to the hipster vocabulary that Miles Davis refers to above. Young black males, he writes, "created a fast-paced, improvisational language that sharply contrasted with the passive stereotype of the stuttering, tongue-tied sambo." Dizzy Gillespie also recognized the relationship between the spoken words of the hipster and the musical rhetoric of bebop: "As we played with musical notes, bending them into new and different meanings that constantly changed, we played with words." Gillespie's "play" represents some important cultural work, firmly situating bebop within the priorities of black vernacular culture.

Moving back to the musical, how do we interpret bebop's artistic pedigree through the lens of its sonic complexity? Did its intricate approach to harmony and rhythm and its virtuosic solos situate it outside the realm of black popular culture? Certainly this notion of complexity is crucial among those who believe that western art music is superior to other musical forms. Ethnomusicologist Judith Becker has argued that many believe "that Western art music is structurally more complex that other music; its architectural hierarchies, involved tonal relationships, and elaborated harmonic syntax not only defy complete analysis but have no parallel in the world." And many jazz writers believe this sentiment to be true because a good deal of jazz literature assigns jazz prestige by arguing that it is just as complicated (and that it is complicated in the same way) as western art music. As I will show later, Powell's music certainly embodies a good deal of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic complexity—so much so that it would seem to support a perception of bebop as art music. Yet we will also see how Powell's early career in swing grounds the music in the repertory, not to mention the social histories, of other 1940s black popular music. (This is not a new point by any means; it is simply amplified in the specific case of Powell.)

Susan McClary has made clear how "within the context of industrial capitalism, two mutually exclusive economies of music developed: that which is measured by popular or commercial success and that which aims for the prestige conferred by official arbiters of taste." The bebop-as-fine-art notion seems to have moved jazz from McClary's first musical economy to the latter. The much-promoted idea that jazz is "America's classical music" seems to suggest that philosophy. But successful music making in the United States has always depended on attracting and satisfying the needs of paying customers, and bebop was no exception. Beboppers worked under these assumptions, as Gillespie himself has pointed out: "We all wanted to make money, preferably by playing modern jazz."

Excerpted from The Amazing Bud Powell by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. “Cullud Boys with Beards”: Serious Black Music and the Art of Bebop
2. Something Else: The Tests and Triumphs of a Modernist
3. Notes and Tones: Black Genius in the Social Order
4. Making the Changes: Jazz Manhood, Bebop Virtuosity, and a New Social Contract
5. Exploding Narratives and Structures in the Art of Bud Powell
Coda: Cultural Validation and Requiem for a Heavyweight

Selected Bibliography
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