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The Madness of Bud Powell

Every artist has a story, or so we in the audience for art like to believe. In music, certainly—particularly in styles of music rich in abstraction, such as the avant-garde and jazz­—it’s easier for us to make something of challenging work if we can conceive of the composer or performer in easy-to-grasp narrative terms. If we imagine John Coltrane as a sojourning mystic, we can process his difficult late work as mystical sojourning. I’ve been thinking about the enduring allure and treachery of the narrative impulse since my last post, which dealt in part with Barbara Carroll, the jazz pianist and singer. I wrote about Carroll but declined to include a video with the post, because the only clip of Carroll on You Tube reinforces the standard narrative about her: that is, that she began as a promising bebop pianist in the Bud Powell vein but submitted to sexist pressures and devolved to lounge singing. (The critic and impresario Leonard Feather, who had produced some of Carroll’s early recordings, describing her “as the first girl to play bebop piano,” later wrote that her career “fell apart” when she took up singing.) The fact that she remains a first-rate bop pianist, still fiery and original, is clear in her too-rare performances in jazz clubs but impossible to see in web video evidence. The pictures tell the story, but not the truth. Fortunately, the web provides a wholly different service in the case of Carroll’s youthful peer, Bud Powell. His story is the jazz version of the Nietzsche myth, a narrative of insanity sapping the genius’ powers. Powell, who did indeed suffer from mental illness and was institutionalized on several occasions, moved in 1959 from New York to Paris, where he is commonly thought to have spent his last years in fitting obscurity, a sad echo of his gifted young self. In this case, the web provides breathtaking evidence to contradict—or at least to amplify—the story. Consider this footage of Powell performing at the Blue Note in Paris with Pierre Michelet on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. The song is Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy,” reinvented, and the date is 1959, half a decade after Powell’s genius supposedly abandoned him. With a clip like this in front of us, what should we think of the Bud Powell story? As madness.