“He was what you call a real genius . . . He was something else in his young age.” Such was the assessment of Bud Powell by Cootie Williams, the trumpeter and bandleader who launched Powell in the New York jazz world. Like many in that first generation of bebop players, Powell is a beguiling, complex figure, undeniably virtuosic in his playing and innovative in his compositions, yet difficult and elusive to his fans and those close to him. In Guthrie Ramsey’s book The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop we realize that things couldn’t have been otherwise for this midcentury generation of black artists, expressive of so many of the contradictions of post-war American life.
Guthrie Ramsey is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Race Music. I sat down with him to talk about Bud Powell’s legacy for modern jazz, how jazz found its way into the academy, and the ongoing debate over whether, as Williams suggests, Bud was a genius (Charlie Parker states things more bluntly: “Bud is a genius.”).
Michael Schapira: Like a lot of the early figures in bebop, Bud Powell was a complicated, slightly mysterious figure. Did you first want to learn more about Bud because of his personality, or was it as a player that you got into him?
Guthrie Ramsey: It was definitely the music that first got me into Bud Powell. As a pianist who wanted to learn how to understand the tradition of jazz I would ask older players who I should listen to. It was assumed in and around the musical culture that I was raised in that you would get into these figures by listening, not by going to a school or something like that. Older musicians would start mentioning him as a pianist that all jazz pianists needed to listen to.
And was it that you all needed to listen to him because he would push you to develop, not that he was necessarily someone to emulate?
Absolutely . What he was doing on the piano was fundamental to being a modern jazz pianist. And that is what people were pushing.
And was this similar for Thelonious Monk, who is paired with Bud Powell in so many ways? It strikes me that Monk’s playing is a little off-beat and could be less helpful for a young player?
I got into Thelonious Monk first of all as a composer. His tunes were some of the tunes that, for people seriously pursuing jazz as a vocation, you would have to know. And of course you can’t listen to his compositions without getting into what he is doing pianistically, that was my pathway to Thelonious Monk.
I have to admit that I didn’t leave the book with a great sense of Bud Powell the man, but this seemed to be an unavoidable challenge. You cite many descriptions of him as “introverted,” verging on silent at times. There are long stretches when he is out of the public eye because either he is hospitalized, in a psychiatric institution, or homebound and in the care of others because of sickness or drug and alcohol abuse. Did you confront a dearth of material when focusing on the biographical aspect of the book — and was this not too much a concern because the book is also a work of cultural history, music criticism, and even literary and aesthetic criticism in your treatments of “black genius” and the relationship of these musicians to other avant-guard and modernist movements?
I think it’s two things that made the book turn out like it did. First, I think it takes a lot of stamina and sustained interest in a figure to write a biography. You have to have a set of questions that you are pursuing.
Peter Pullman has published a Bud Powell biography and he’d been working on it for years. He wanted to write a biography, so he went down that path when he started the project. When I began to write the book I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. In retrospect, being a professor and always teaching, I wrote it as someone who is often in front of people, getting them to hear, getting them to understand that learning history is important to hearing, to understand that the masterpieces that we study in jazz history have context and have histories. So in order to understand the full story you have to move in lots of different directions, not just through biography.
In the book you discuss the history of Jazz Studies as an academic discipline. Can you briefly recount this history, along with “the New Jazz Studies?”
Let’s see. Part of the trajectory of Jazz Studies being welcomed into academia began in the 50s, when you had professors of English like Marshall Stearns, who were not musicologists, but were academics who believed that the methods they were using to study literature could also be applied to jazz. They also believed that doing research and writing about jazz in that way would boost its prestige and respect, not only in the academy, but throughout American culture.
It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that you started having musicological jazz dissertations. You had people like Scott Deveaux, working at UC-Berkeley, and Ingrid Monson, who is now at Harvard, but did her work at NYU. Mark Tucker wrote on Duke Ellington at the University of Michigan, or Ron Radano, who was also at Michigan at the time. So you had a group of scholars who were getting academic jobs in music departments having written on jazz topics. For me, those things coming together marked what really solidified jazz studies.
Now this business of the “new jazz studies,” it’s just a handle for an activity that was going on primarily at Columbia under the auspices of Bob O’Meely, who was an English professor. That body of work was primarily interdisciplinary in that he had scholars from English, History, Music, and Anthropology coming together with critics and musicians, thinking about not only jazz as sound, but jazz as it has circulated in all these other realms, like film and photography for instance. It was a moment, though I don’t want to say “was” because work still is being generated out of that paradigm.
You end the book discussing Stopforbud, a short experimental film made by the Danish director Jorgen Leth. Did you include this because it revealed something about Bud, or was it more about how he was viewed by these Europeans who became so central to his later career [Bud lived in Paris for several years in the care of Francis Paudras, a fan who later wrote a memoir of the period called Dance of the Infidels, which was the basis for the film Round Midnight]?
I think the latter. The filmmaker Jorgen Leth believed that he would be the perfect figure for that kind of experimental film, and I think it really positions him as a modernist in European ideas about jazz, but also in retrospect in American culture, because in my view it exoticizes him. He doesn’t have dialogue for example, so I don’t think it was meant to reveal anything about his interiority. The ways its shot and conceived, it allows the audience to fill in all of the blanks.
The little dialogue in the film is provided by Dexter Gordon. He recounts a story where Bud Powell went on the stage at Carnegie Hall and announced, “George Shearing [a white jazz pianist] is making $3,000 per week while I’m working for scale. A contradiction.” One thing I really appreciated about your book was the focus on the commercial side of the music. You quote Robin Kelley, who wrote in his biography of Monk that “for a young African-American man in Depression Era New York, any income was welcome.” How difficult it was for an African American artist, and an avant-guard artist in this instance, to make a living in the 1940s is something that often gets left out of these accounts.
Anytime that music or any kind of art form is being presented as a model of art, the tendency is to take commercial concerns as if they are tainting that idea. What I think about the idea of commerce is that it is always in the mix, particularly in America. It’s always about separating people from their money. This was crucial in the movement down from Harlem to the clubs on 52nd street. This music has always been something that people felt they could make money off of — the musicians as well as the entrepreneurs, who for the most part exploited them.
Some sections in the book deal with the notion of “black genius.” There seem to be two approaches, the romantic one that points to the singularity of an artist in transcending the limitations of their circumstances, and the social one that pays more attention to how these limitations were negotiated.
I was trying to show how the term was fraught with all of these social meanings, and there is more to it than meets the eye, for example in who gets the label, who is doing the labeling, or all the extra-musical factors that go into the idea of genius. People say that Lauryn Hill is a genius. She had one commercial album that really solidified her. She also had her work with the Fugees, but you know geniuses rarely get called that because of their collaborations. It’s usually about being set off as exceptional from everything around you.
These extra-musical factors seem very important in Jazz. For example, Powell, Monk, Charlie Parker, or Charles Mingus are often called geniuses, and they share certain traits like mental health or substance abuse issues. However, someone like Duke Ellington, who had a long and consistently productive career without these other factors, might not get the genius label.
Let’s think about Duke. Some people may call him a genius because he had so many compositions and he was instrumental in establishing jazz composition as a legitimate marker of achievement. Some people will call him a genius for this. A lot more people call musicians geniuses if they have these other difficulties that you mention. For me it’s more about interrogating why that happens than trying to determine who I personally believe is a musical genius.
There has been a lore that has built up around jazz musicians from Powell’s period. For example, in Round Midnight the main character is based on a composite of Lester Young and Bud Powell, and is played by Dexter Gordon, who like these two figures and so many others from the early years of bebop suffered from drug addiction, which led to a tremendous amount of personal and professional difficulties (what Krin Gabbard describes as the “self-destructive jazz musician stereotype”). Did you find mediating and engaging these stereotypes in the popular imagination a hindrance or an asset in your treatment of Bud Powell? Does this allow you to more effectively do cultural history, because these stereotypes focus us away from a romantic fixation on the “individual genius” and more on the artistic milieu in which they worked? Or do you feel more of a responsibility to single out the individual character and contribution of Bud Powell?
Let’s say yes and no. Yes, because his eccentricities make a colorful figure. In order to make this guy’s life interesting I didn’t have to do much. I just had to represent it as best I could and analyze it as best I could. On the other hand, as someone who cares about the reputations of these musicians that I write about, I don’t want to participate in the further exiling of them to this weird corner of American music history, nor do I want to ever whitewash it and act like it didn’t happen, as some studies might do because they just want to focus on the music divorced from any historical context. For these kinds of studies it’s just a beautiful object from a beautiful musician at a beautiful moment. You can go that route, and people are really happy to read those kinds of accounts, particularly if they respect those musicians and love that music. What I think I’m saying is that there is no easy road if you care about the musicians you are dealing with. There are horrifying facts about people’s lives. If you just imagine some of the things that Bud went through, and particularly if you put yourself in the place of being one of his family members or close friends, it’s pretty a traumatic thing to endure.
There is the moment in his life when even his father is not willing to take him into his home.
That’s very telling. People get to the ends of their resources — their personal, emotional, psychological, financial, and physical resources. At that moment I had to ask “what does this actually mean about Bud Powell,” and if you have to draw the conclusion that Bud Powell was a difficult person then so be it. What is interesting for me though is that some people get a pass for being difficult, others don’t.
Are you thinking about people like Miles Davis?
I think that the analyses of his issues are pretty fair. I was more or less thinking about composers of Western Art music, like Beethoven and Bach. Their difficulties become glorified as markers of their greatness and they get passed over for this kind of treatment, for actually critically engaging how difficult they might have been to just be around. I’m just saying that we need to be as truthful about the person as we can, but also think about the context in which they were living their lives and making their careers so that we can draw a connection between the two.
Do you have any favorite compositions of Bud Powell’s?
It depends on the mood. I think “Un Poco Loco” is an amazing piece. I redid that song for the soundtrack for a short film I’m making on Bud Powell. I reconstituted it in this go-go kind of thing and tried to really mix it up.
“Tempus Fugit” is an amazing piece. Glass Enclosure is kind of a marvel of compression. I just like how much range he had in his compositions. They all seem very crafted and beautiful to me, so that makes it hard for me to say any particular song is my favorite. It’s hard for me to say even who my favorite musician is. I’ve learned to find something to appreciate in so many different kinds of things.
Your previous book, Race Music, was kind of experimental in its structure, including interviews with your relatives about their musical experiences and theories.
It was definitely experimental. I was trying to prove a lot with that book. One of those things is that there doesn’t just have to be one mode of academic address in books for them to be successful or useful. I wanted to show that the “masses” of black people actually have pretty astute things to say about their culture and they analyze their culture constantly. I learned that they provide theoretical paradigms that should be included in scholarly work. I was also trying to understand my own writerly position among all these materials. You can think that your bibliography is your intellectual history. But I believe that you bring other histories to the table when you are writing. Who formed you, what cultural formations helped you become a thinker? It’s not just what you read in the library. It’s always other experiences, and I was trying to understand how to write out of both of those, so that’s why I started interviewing family members to see where that comes from, and tried to theorize that, too.