Music Reviews
2:13 pm
Mon March 24, 2014

After A Painful Year, Bud Powell's Triumpant 1953 Return

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 2:14 pm

The great bebop pianist Bud Powell played several engagements at the New York jazz club Birdland in 1953. Parts of his shows were broadcast on the radio, and one listener recorded some onto acetate discs. A new collection of those recordings is out now: Birdland 1953 on three CDs from ESP-Disk'. The sound quality isn't much, but the music is terrific. The players with whom he worked there include bassists Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus and drummer Roy Haynes.

Powell had played Birdland before he opened there on Feb. 5, 1953, but this return engagement was a big deal. That very day, he'd been discharged from a state psychiatric hospital, after being committed for a year and a half following a drug bust. (Powell's mental troubles stemmed partly from a 1945 police beating in Philadelphia.) He was painfully uncommunicative face to face. But when he sat at the keys, it was a whole other story.

As with other versions of this material, the sound only gets cleaned up so far; filter out the surface noise and you also lose most of the cymbals. But Powell's piano punches through. His quicksilver lines could echo Charlie Parker's saxophone, breath pauses and all. Still, Powell's concept was deeply pianistic — he knew how to make the strings ring, and how to cover the keyboard. Older pianists accused bebop players of performing with only one hand. But Bud Powell's jabbing left is always part of the rhythmic conversation.

A recent biography of the pianist, the exhaustively researched and thoroughly depressing Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman, spells out what a nightmare Powell's life was at the time. While hospitalized, he was subjected to at least a dozen insulin shock treatments. When he was released, it was into the custody of Oscar Goodstein, his legal guardian and business manager, as well as the manager of Birdland where Powell was appearing — shades of the old plantation. Then Goodstein pushed Powell into a sham marriage to a woman he barely knew. It didn't last, but Powell was hemmed in on all sides.

Powell named one evocative new tune "Glass Enclosure," either for the Birdland radio announcer's booth near the stage, or the apartment his manager warehoused him in, or maybe the invisible box that walled Powell off like a trapped mime. You can understand why Powell so needed to play, he'd nudge other pianists off the bench when he went club-hopping. The keyboard was the only place where he could fully express himself.

It turned out that 1953 was one of Bud Powell's most productive years. Besides his series of Birdland engagements, he had some out-of-town gigs, including a celebrated Toronto concert that reunited him with his bebop peers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. He also recorded a batch of material for the Roost and Blue Note labels, the latter released under the rubric The Amazing Bud Powell. The performances on Birdland 1953 confirm that that adjective was no idle boast.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The great bebop pianist Bud Powell played several engagements at the New York jazz club Birdland in 1953. Parts of those shows were carried on the radio, and one listener recorded some onto acetate discs. A new collection of those recordings has been released. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the sound quality isn't much, but the music is terrific.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gentlemen from the stage of Birdland on Broadway at 52nd Street. Once again, welcome to the live show portion of the Birdland show right here on Broadway and 52nd Street. Listening right now to our theme done by the amazing Bud Powell, the trio, the Bud Powell Trio doing "Lullaby of Birdland."

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bud Powell had played Birdland before he opened there on February 5, 1953, but this return engagement was a big deal. That very day, he'd been discharged from a state psychiatric hospital, after being committed for a year and a half following a drug bust. Powell's mental troubles partly stemmed from a 1945 police beating in Philadelphia. He was painfully uncommunicative face to face but when he sat at the keys, it was a whole other story.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

BUD POWELL: Bud Powell with Oscar Pettiford on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. It's from the latest edition of the pianist's 1953 Birdland material, a three CD set from ESP. As with other versions of this material, the sound only gets cleaned up so far; filter out the surface noise and you also lose most of the cymbals. But Bud's piano punches through.

WHITEHEAD: His quicksilver lines could echo Charlie Parker's saxophone, breath pauses and all. Still, Powell's concept was deeply pianistic - he knew how to make the strings ring, and cover the keyboard. Older pianists accused beboppers of playing with only one hand. But Bud jabbing left is always part of the rhythmic conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: There's a recent biography of the pianist, the exhaustively researched and thoroughly depressing "Wail: The Life of Bud Powell" by Peter Pullman. It spells out what a nightmare Bud's life was at the time. While hospitalized, he was subjected to at least a dozen insulin shock treatments.

When he was released, it was into the custody of Oscar Goodstein, his legal guardian and business manager and the manager of Birdland where Bud was appearing - shades of the old plantation. Then Goodstein pushed Powell into a sham marriage to a woman he barely knew. It didn't last, but Powell was hemmed in on all sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC, "GLASS ENCLOSURE")

WHITEHEAD: Bud Powell named one evocative new tune "Glass Enclosure," either for Birdland's announcer's booth near the stage, or the apartment his manager warehoused him in, or maybe the invisible box that walled Bud off like a trapped mime. You can understand why Powell so needed to play, he'd nudge other pianists off the bench when he went club-hopping. The keyboard was the only place where he could fully express himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: Bud Powell with Roy Haynes and bassist Charles Mingus. 1953 was one of Bud Powell's most productive years. Besides his series of Birdland engagements, he had some out-of-town gigs, including a celebrated Toronto concert that reunited him with his bebop peers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. He also recorded a batch of material for the Roost and Blue Note labels, the latter released under the rubric "The Amazing Bud Powell." The performances on "Birdland 1953" confirm that that adjective was no idle boast.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Bud Powell: Birdland 1953" on the ESP label. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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