Bud Powell

American Jazz Pianist and Composer (1924, New York – 1966, New York)

Bud Powell, the “virtuoso with the hands of a genius”, had a cursed career. He was at the forefront of the Be-bop movement but his career was cut short by illness.

Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell was raised in a family of musicians and started playing the piano at the age of 6. He left school at 15 years old and started to play in his trumpeter brother’s band. Here he met his Thelonious monk, who would become his teacher, mentor and even his friend. His career truly began at the beginning of the 1940s when he began playing in several bands, including that of Cootie Williams. He rubbed shoulders with musicians such as Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, and Kenny Clarke, and was part of the first recording of Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight. He earnt a reputation as a dazzlingly talented pianist and was, along with Thelonious Monk, at the forefront of the burgeoning Be-bop movement. On the 21st of January 1945, the two musicians were violently attacked by police officers. This incident is said to have been the trigger of the mental difficulties Bud Powell later suffered from. In 1947 he recorded as a trio, first with the bassist Curley Russell and the drummer Max Roach, then with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. That same year he spent a prolonged period in a psychiatric hospital. He underwent electroshock therapy, which had an impact on his personality. He fell into alcoholism and easily became aggressive. 

From 1949, Bud Powell recorded with Fats Navarro, Sonny Rollins and Tommy Porter for the music label Blue Note. In 1951, he was once again put away after an alleged drugs trafficking incident. He was freed thanks to Oscar Goodstein, the owner of Birdland, a famous New York jazz club. Goodstein became his guardian, as Powell was declared insane and deprived of his civil rights. The neuroleptic and antipsychotic drugs he was given had a negative impact on his creativity. In 1956, he was reassigned his civic rights, which allowed him to go on his first European tour. But tragedy found him again when his brother Richie died in a car accident with Clifford Brown. In 1959, Bud Powell moved to Paris to live with Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards. He formed a trio called The Three Bosses, with Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot and continued to record, they even appeared at the Essen Jazz Festival. In 1962, he left “Buttercup” and moved in with his friend Francis Paudras, who later wrote a book Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell. His health gradually began to deteriorate; he contracted tuberculosis in 1963. He returned to New York the following year, where he was triumphantly welcomed at Birdland. In 1966 he was hospitalised at King’s County Hospital and died on the 21st of July. 

Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Bud Powell

1940: Met Thelonius Monk

1945: Violently assaulted by police officers 

1947: Recorded with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Hospitalised for the first time. 

1949: Recorded for Blue Note 

1951: Hospitalised again. Put under the guardianship of Oscar Goodstein. 

1959: Moved to Paris