Portrait of a Jazz Genius

— Connie Crothers

Dance of the Infidels, A Portrait of Bud Powell
by Francis Paudras, translated from French by Rubye Monet
First publication 1986, English edition New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, 353 pages, $18.95 paperback

THE INNOVATOR OF modern jazz piano, Bud Powell should have a renown equal to that of any musician who ever lived. From his earliest performing years in the 1940s, playing mainly in New York City clubs and concerts, he stunned and electrified all who heard him with his extraordinary virtuosity, the astonishing beauty of his improvising and the tremendous energy he brought to all his playing.

Almost all jazz pianists playing today can trace their approach to playing, through countless individuals in a genealogy of piano players, to Bud as their source and the originator of most of the premises of their musicianship.

In this memoir by Francis Paudras, a French pianist who recognized Bud’s rare genius and who became his friend and protector in France during Bud’s troubled later years, Bud is portrayed as the profound artist and profound human being he truly was. Because Francis’ life was bound up with Bud’s fortunes, misfortunes and eventual fate during this time, this book is his story as well, for which reason it works better than the conventional biography.

Francis writes with such personal conviction and great emotion as well as musical knowledge that the book places the reader right inside the lives of these two—wonderful occasions of joy, moments of wringing despair as well as the extraordinary counterpoint of unexpected events and shifting moods that comprised Bud’s everyday experiences.

Tragic Triple Persecution

All these are vivid described in what becomes both a loving tribute and an indictment of the forces which worked against Bud and finally proved overwhelming.

The timing of this book’s release is coincidental with the recent rash of well-publicized racist police brutality, sadistic violence that can cause permanent injury, disability or death. That this brutality is nothing new is attested to by the fact that an assault of this horrific magnitude happened to Bud as a young man.

Francis describes the incident in the first two pages, as it had been recounted to him by others: In January 1945 in a Philadelphia nightclub, when Bud stepped in to protest a police assault on friend and fellow pianist Thelonious Monk, one of the legally deputized thugs put a club through Bud’s cranium.

No doubt because of Bud’s race, there was a crucial delay in getting his injury treated. Subsequently Bud began to act in such a way that those in charge felt that they could institutionalize and further brutalize him.

By the time this incident had reached its final conclusion, Bud was left brain-damaged for life, a condition that caused increasingly severe bouts of psychosis. These episodes led to periodic hospitalization in institutions where he was subjected to shock treatments. Bud’s own damaging attempts at self-medication with alcohol caused him to spiral downward.

His ensuing mental state left him vulnerable to the machinations of those people in Bud’s life who had something to gain by using him. As Francis documents, Bud wound up on the wrong end of a triple persecution—a victim of racism, of disability due to psychosis, and the peculiar, bizarre persecution directed against the jazz musician.

A Vulnerable Genius

Earl (Bud) Powell was born in New York City on September 27, 1924, and died in New York City on July 31, 1966. He lived most of his life and did most of his playing in New York City, a major contributor to the evolution of jazz referred to (erroneously) as “bebop.” (In an interview in Down Beat in 1951, he stated “I wish it had been given a name more in keeping with its seriousness of purpose.”)

After suffering several setbacks, collapses and damaging hospital treatments, he stayed on in Paris after playing an engagement there. During this period, from 1959 to 1964, he was befriended by Francis Paudras, already an ardent admirer.

Francis describes hearing Bud at the Club Saint Germain in Paris:

“He seemed to me a sort of alchemist, blending matchless craftsmanship with unbounded inspiration, and topping it off with impeccable taste. The combination of dizzying power and heartrending tenderness transported us straight to heaven.” (28)

Francis and his companion Nicole soon took in the enormity of Bud’s vulnerability, became devoted to Bud’s survival and, winning Bud’s trust, shared their apartment with him and ran interference with some of the destructive vagaries of Bud’s existence. By giving Bud a high level of caring friendship, Francis made it possible for Bud to experience a period of relative security and to enjoy more years of productive and creative life.

In this book, Francis makes a strong case that the all-too-often cited deterioration in Bud’s playing was not due to his illness, but was caused by the abusive treatment to which he was constantly subjected. During this time in Bud’s life, when many critics bemoaned the waning of his musical powers, he rebounded magnificently.

“When Bud played,” Francis writes, “he seemed to me more and more, like an unconscious medium, prey to irresistible forces, his face expressing the state of grace he had entered ... To my mind he belonged to another dimension, in contact with some higher power that nourished his creative force. By his reverence and his intense aspiration to beauty, he was in a state of osmosis with a perfect world, a world that he alone could envision. For me, Bud’s fingertips touched the mystery of the beyond ... I had never before witnessed such a phenomenon of trance. The music was of a gravity and majesty approaching the unbearable.” (108)

Joy and Despair of Life

As Bud relaxed in new surroundings in Francis and Nicole’s specially furnished apartment and began to reclaim his own capacities, he needed less of the anti-psychotic medication he had been forced to take.

Shedding his distancing silence, he became more sociable. Francis reminisces:

“He now remained lively and our evenings ended joyfully ... We discovered a new Bud who, as the effects of the drug wore off, was good-humored and fond of fun.” (104)

Bud loved food and would feast on enormous quantities of especially favored dishes. Their evening soirees would include performances by Bud, many of which Francis recorded.

On one occasion, Francis recalls how startled Bud was hearing the recorded music. He didn’t realize that it was a recording of his own playing. When Francis assured him that it was:

“He stared at me for long minutes as if to make sure I was telling the truth, then stood up, walked to the piano, took hold of the corner of the lid and didn’t let go. His back was to us and Nicole looked questioningly at me. When I came up behind him I saw his face reflected in a mirror. His eyes were brimming with tears. He was holding on to the piano for dear life with all the strength of desperation.”

There were times of difficulty and crisis. On one occasion Bud disappeared. Francis finally found him in a psychiatric ward. Realizing that Bud would only deteriorate there, Francis got him released in his guardianship by outwitting uncomprehending and bureaucratic medical personnel and with the help of a compassionate doctor.

Another time, Bud was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined to a sanitarium. His spectacular recovery took everyone by surprise, and he was soon performing again.

A holiday sojourn at a seaside town, Edenville, was to be Bud’s last happy time in France. Bud accepted an offer to return to New York to play at the famous club Birdland. He left for New York, accompanied by Francis, on August 16, 1964. From then on, Bud was thrown into a nightmare, the ferocity of which would cost him his life.

Arriving in New York, Francis relates:

“I began to have the feeling that things weren’t going to be as easy or as exalting as I had imagined ... By an inevitable process that I didn’t really understand until much later, Bud was experiencing a series of flashbacks of his past, a past that was to reappear before him ...

“At the start of his career, Bud was the typical example of the artist coveted by crafty businessmen ... His employers were part of that nightlife underworld in which gangsters, drug dealers, and pimps could get rich without being bothered. Jazz musicians had no choice if they wanted to work.

“Bud had a visceral hostility for club owners, middlemen, and other denizens of this world ... It was a strange period, when managers could impose their will on musicians, could blithely decide, without consulting them, everything concerning their contracts and their pay.“

Bud was soon involved in a “company store” kind of no-win situation. Before the first night of performance, most of his pay had been already spent on contingent expenses claimed by the management. Then he had to endure the humiliating treatment reserved for jazz musicians, who were required by law to get a “cabaret card” to work in a jazz club.

Francis describes:

“After a long wait, Mr. Gillespie (official of the Liquor Authority) called us into his office, which was about as warm and cozy as a prison cell. He leafed through Bud’s file as if it were a pile of dirty laundry. As his face went from surprise to astonishment to positive distaste, Bud sank lower and lower in his chair.

“Bud was sweating buckets and the time seemed interminable. He took some notes, then told me we would have to come back with the following documents: narcotics test, medical certificate after a complete checkup, and a police attestation with official ID and fingerprints. In short, just what an artist needs to feel in perfect shape.

“I was beginning to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. Here I had brought back home the uncontested master of the keyboard, the idol of pianists, at the top of his form, full of love, generosity and enthusiasm, ready to release the treasures of his genius, and he was greeted like a delinquent or a criminal.”

A Tragic End

More harrowing experiences followed. Francis recounts:

“Of all the red tape we had to take care of, the worst were the visits to the police. Bud dreaded each one despite my reassurances that he had nothing to fear. Our last one hadn’t gone very well. Bud was nervous and the police didn’t fail to notice it, I tried to appear casual despite my anxiety.

“After a series of nasty and ambiguous questions, they motioned Bud into an adjoining room for the customary fingerprinting, I had never witnessed the process. Each joint of each finger was inked separately, as well as the palms and the sides of the hands. Bud was perspiring profusely. At one point he wrenched his hand away from the cop who held it and tried to wipe his dripping face ... The cop looked on in contempt.”

The musicians’ union was no better.

“With all the red tape I was beginning to have a better idea of what musicians had to go through in the United States, particularly if they were marginal in any way. The musicians’ union, the American Federation of Musicians, had demanded all Bud’s back dues, to be deducted from his future earnings ... All these years, the union hadn’t taken the slightest interest in the problems of one of its most illustrious members.”

In spite of these odds, opening night at Birdland was a triumph for Bud and an occasion of great emotion for musical compatriots, friends and fans who were there.

Troubles only worsened, however. From then on, with fleeting respites, the nightmare reached out and drew Bud down into a hideous vortex. Bud’s performances became painful to observe. His health deteriorated catastrophically.

He went into Kings County Hospital. Francis describes his panic when he heard they planned to give him more shock treatments, knowing the horrendous effects they had on him.

In this grim place, Bud Powell died. The joy of his music and its power to transport and inspire will live as long as there are people to hear it and be moved and transformed by it.

Fitting Memorial

In 1984, Francis Paudras visited New York City, bringing with him some film footage of Bud in performance, mostly in a trio with Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot. I was fortunate enough to be there when he presented this wonderful documentation of Bud’s playing at pianist and teacher Barry Harris’ studio, then located an Eighth Avenue.

Having been deeply influenced by Bud’s playing on records for years, I was thrilled to have the chance to watch him play, as well as to hear music I hadn’t yet heard. I was keenly aware of Bud’s fiery sound as well as the way in which he could release the intrinsic beauty of every note he played, no matter how stratospheric the tempo.

I anticipated seeing Bud’s fingers flying so fast and furiously, they would become a blur, their velocity eluding the flying frames of the moving film. To my great surprise, his fingers looked as if they were gently floating into the keys. They eased into the keys and released the notes from the deepest key position. They appeared to move in slow motion, even as the notes flew out the piano at incredible speed.

As Francis describes it, Bud Powell’s fingers

“... moved with such apparent slowness that it was incomprehensible to the public and even more incredible to the pianists in the audience. As if by magic, his fingers always found the notes he wanted. Despite the endless chances he took, his fingering was perfect.

“Never before had I seen a pianist with such fantastic technique, Besides the esthetic experience, this was the most audacious music I had ever had the privilege to hear ... The movements of his fingers were spellbinding in their perfection.”

Included in this book are many beautiful photographs, mostly taken by Francis. All the chapters have titles taken from Bud’s repertoire, either titles of his compositions (Glass Enclosure, Parisian Thoroughfare) or the titles of songs from which Bud drew some of his most memorable recorded solos.

In this review, I want Francis to have the last chorus:

“I make no claim to reveal all the facts of Bud’s interior world. The complexity of his genius is such that his personality, however likable and endearing, will probably always remain shrouded in mystery. Yet how dreadful it would be to let his vast contributions fall into oblivion. (x)

ATC 82, September–October 1999