Monday, February 14, 2005


the days when art was a contact sport

Bud Powell, Tempus Fugue-It.

The first jazz generation, that of Armstrong and Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, appears as sound as stone--long-lived, unflagging professionals who even in their sixties could still reel off letter-perfect performances. That is not to deny the great, awful distances some like Armstrong had traveled. Yet on the bandstand and on the records, at least, they seem impervious to life, even masters of it.

Not so the second jazz generation, that of Holiday, Parker, Monk and, perhaps most of all, the pianist Bud Powell. Here the chaos of these performers' private lives blots through into their works, adding shadow to the picture. Is it because of their times, when there was a more popularized sense of (and even taste for) neurosis? (After all, the same conflation of personal misery and art is found in many poets of the same generation--Lowell, Berryman, etc.) Was it because these musicians' struggles with drugs and demons simply made them hipper, to contemporary admirers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, or to later generations, accustomed to associating erratic lives with majestic works? (The Van Gogh syndrome.)

For Bud Powell, the fragility of his mental and physical health, the hellishness of his life outside the stage and studio, so colors his work that one cannot help but consider his records as pieces of an overall life performance; unfair, perhaps, as that may be. Gary Giddins, in Visions of Jazz, hopes that one day transcriptions of Powell solos will be programmed at piano recitals alongside compositions of Liszt and Bach, thus at last granting the work a measure of liberation from its creator. Until then, the man and the music hang together.

Powell had spent much of 1948 in Creedmoor State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Queens (not too far from Locust St., as it happens) to which he had been committed after a bar fight. Powell had never recovered fully from a brutal police beating in 1944, which had left him with slight epilepsy, among other woes. At Creedmoor, Powell endured the typical methods used at the time to thrash the 'insane' back into health--beatings, electroshock, dousings in ammoniated water.

By January 1949, Powell was desperate to get out. A brief release in late '48 had only solidified his fears that he was missing his chance; Powell had last recorded in spring 1947--many of the pianists he had inspired were now leading their own groups. His name was losing currency. He and his mother pleaded with his doctors to give him at least a day's leave to record (some doctors evidently believed this to be a delusion indulged by his mother, writing in their evaluations "patient claims to have made records.")

On February 23, Powell was granted temporary leave and went to Reeves Sound Studio to record his first session as a leader. The sense of time being desperately rationed, of having the smallest of windows in which to make his mark, translates into one of Powell's most explosive performances ever recorded. "Tempus Fugue-It" seems to be a duel with time itself, which Powell wins--his playing is ferocious, starting with a chord-crashing declaration of principles, then a solo section in which Powell runs up and down the keyboard, cracking out melody from every corner of it, riffing at frantically high speed but never once seeming to have lost control.

Powell had never been a patient man--he was known for turning up in his black suit and hat at a club and silently fuming at the bar, until, having had enough, he would stride to the bandstand and tell the hapless pianist to get out and let someone who knew his business be heard, at times pushing the man off the bench. In "Fugue-It," it seems the very limits of time and measure get the back of Powell's hand.

At last, in April 1949, Powell was released from Creedmoor, and he embarked with a fury upon a string of recording sessions and performances that would establish him as what the album later compiled from these wild sessions would call him, a jazz giant.

"Tempus Fugue-It", recorded with Max Roach on drums and Ray Brown on bass, can be found here, a collection of his Mercury and Clef recordings from 1949-50. (Some details on Powell's life from Peter Pullman's liner notes.)

Number 8, 1949. (Can be viewed at the Neuberger Museum of Art (which bought it for $800).)

On August 8, 1949, Jackson Pollock became a household name, literally, as hundreds of thousands of Life subscribers read an article showcasing a tough-looking man in bluejeans standing before a colossally large canvas upon which hundreds of apparently aimless brush-slaps and paintblobs are smeared. Pollock is at the astonishing peak of his powers, but the article itself, which essentially asks the reader "Is this guy really the best painter in the United States? The New York Critics say he is," sets the stage for the wearying debate about the worth of 'modern art' that will continue for decades to come...

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