Interview with Dr. David DeMotta on the Music of Bud Powell

Dave DeMotta is a New York-based pianist, scholar, and adjunct assistant professor at Hunter College. He holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the CUNY Graduate Center, and M.M. and B.M. degrees in jazz performance from William Paterson University. I spoke with Dr. DeMotta on the topic of his recent dissertation, “The Contributions of Earl ‘Bud’ Powell to the Modern Jazz Style.”


Dean Reynolds: What led you to a dissertation on the music of Bud Powell?

Dave DeMotta: A goal for me has been to find a way for my study of jazz piano and my academic research to complement or enhance one another. I searched for a topic that would help me to advance my concept and raise my level as a musician but also would allow me to make some contributions to the scholarship and pedagogy of jazz. I considered writing about other pianists, including Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Ahmad Jamal. I also thought about writing about the repertoire, such as the compositions of Benny Golson or Horace Silver. I settled on Powell because I found his music to be so profoundly rich in detail, and I felt that there was so much yet to learn from it. I also began to hear more and more connections between things that Powell did in the late 1940s and early 1950s and things that other innovators did 10 or 20 years later. I became convinced that analyzing Bud Powell’s music could lay some groundwork for future studies of jazz piano, my own and hopefully those of other scholars as well.

DR: Could you give us a brief gloss on your analysis of Powell’s music? What do you argue are his signal contributions to modern jazz style?

DD: My analysis mainly deals with the relationship between pitch and rhythm. I argue that in his melodic improvisations and left-hand comping, Powell engages harmony and harmonic rhythm to express the core aesthetics of modern jazz rhythm. Another significant contribution of Powell’s that was a recurring theme in the dissertation involves the ways that he was able to create dissonances against the harmonic rhythm in his right-hand lines and between his hands. His improvised melodic lines were lyrical and inventive, but also they often articulated a kind of voice leading that’s idiomatic to modern jazz.

DR: You had extensive conversations with many professional musicians, asking them general questions about Powell’s music and discussing specific performances. Why were these collaborations so important to your own theorizing about Powell’s music?

DD: I had a good network of knowledgeable players of every instrument with whom I could discuss this music. I reached out to them and told them what I was trying to do with this project, but I tried just to let them say what they wanted to say about Powell’s music. I was very happy when they came to certain points that I had also come to through my own analysis.

They know that Bud Powell was a great improviser and melodically fresh and the harmony was a special kind of harmony. This is important, but I think they were especially concerned with the way that the general time feel of jazz changed in the bebop period and how Bud Powell was one of the first people to find a way to give the piano a real voice in that new context. So they actually talked quite a bit in terms of rhythm, and I wanted to write about rhythm in the way that musicians think about rhythm and talk about rhythm. If I hadn’t been in touch with musicians, there would be less rhythm in the dissertation.

DR: How did your experiences as a working jazz musician and teacher inform your analysis?

DD: I play a few gigs per week as a freelancer and do many private jam sessions. By practicing and playing regularly, I’ve internalized a good deal of repertoire and vocabulary associated with bebop, which allowed me to recognize things in recordings more quickly. I also started to hear the rhythms of bebop differently after I transcribed and played something like “The Fruit” or “Parisian Thoroughfare” or “Hallucinations.” Or Powell’s solo on “Wail.” I worked that “Wail” solo up so I could play it as fast as he does right along with the recording. He’s playing beat four so strongly in his left hand, and I started to hear beat four differently, you know, hooking up with the drums on beat four, ending phrases on beat four, starting phrases on beat four.

You might find that there are times when there’s something else going on that’s more important than rhythm—the voice leading in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” for example. And his lines are also so lyrical; in some cases they could be like the melody of a beautiful ballad. When I play a Bud Powell solo that’s very, very fast slowly, I hear how melodic it really is. But if the motivation is to understand and teach students how the music works at its core, it’s very useful to think of rhythm as the most important parameter. I think that rhythm is really important to his distinctive sound.

DR: Tied to your discussion of rhythm is some very sophisticated analysis of voice leading in Powell’s music. Can you elaborate a bit more on this, and on your approach to building a theory of his music in general?

DD: Generally, I would rather start with music and then try to see which theories best illuminate what’s going—or combine theories or make up a theory—than start with a theory that has sort of been designed for something else. With that being said, there’s no way that I would have been able to develop the voice leading analysis in the dissertation without two doctoral seminars in Schenkerian analysis. I had been working on my own voice leading and I had ways of thinking about voice leading beforehand, but I took Schenkerian analysis and I started to really see these things. My theorizing started to come together, even if I had to change the Schenkerian theory to match the cyclic, rhythmic nature of bebop.

DR: In your first chapter, you highlight different interpretations of a very specific chord in “Un Poco Loco” made by three of your informants. Why do you foreground these?

DD: There’s an avant-garde side to Powell that we don’t hear about as much, and the A section of that tune is one of those moments. The other reason was that these three really experienced, senior-level, professional pianists who teach at conservatories all had a slightly different way of explaining that chord, and they all made sense. And I didn’t ask them about this; they all independently brought up that moment.

DR: You transcribed all or a large portion of over 25 different recordings. Could you talk about your transcription methodology? What are some of the particular challenges that you faced when transcribing?

DD: I have been transcribing jazz solos at the piano for years. Digital technology has made this much easier than it was with tapes and CDs. I used the program Transcribe! to slow recordings down and isolate tough chords and passages, yet for all that there are undoubtedly still some errors. Some of the transcriptions were very difficult for me, especially harmonically dissonant things like “Glass Enclosure,” but I made multiple revised drafts and passed them out to other pianists to play through, including many of the participants in the dissertation. Tardo Hammer was an especially great resource because he knows Bud’s music so well and has transcribed much of it himself.

DR: Early in the dissertation, you raise questions about Powell’s compositions. We know Powell as a master of bebop improvisation, but often think of other beboppers, especially Monk but also Dizzy, as the preeminent composers of that era.

DD: There are probably a few reasons for that. A colleague of mine once remarked that a Powell tune like “Oblivion,” for example, just doesn’t lay on the alto as well as bebop classics like “Woody ’n’ You” do. And something like “The Glass Enclosure” is so far away from the standard performance practice. Some of them are just tricky, like the “The Fruit.” They’re just hard to play. On the other hand, “Brilliant Corners” is hard to play, too.

But after doing this work I started to hear Powell’s compositions everywhere, you know, in Sonny Clark or Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones. These people are all individuals and they have their own ways of playing, but I heard pieces of these compositions in the improvising of many musicians.

DR: That’s really interesting. When telling jazz history, there’s often a tendency to privilege compositions that have become standards or are recognized as visionary or ahead of their time; much less often do we value compositions largely to the extent that they inform the concepts of other musicians.

DD: Mark Soskin told me that they’re like études for him. It’s really interesting, because Mark does not sound like Bud Powell, but I can imagine him using them as études, as resources.

I also hear Bud in horn players that came later. Sonny Rollins is really interesting; you can hear on those early albums that he sounds just like himself, but at the same time, certain ways that he uses modal mixture and does other things remind me of Bud. I was called for a gig once and one of the tunes was the Tadd Dameron tune “On a Misty Night,” a medium tempo tune in E-flat on Mating Call. While preparing, I noticed that Coltrane’s double-time playing using the “sheets of sound” really reminds me of Bud playing “Strictly Confidential” in the same key. I wish I could go back in time and ask him if he listened closely to that record.

DR: I loved David Berkman’s comment to you about Bud’s legacy: “He’s not the gospel, he’s a revolutionary!” Can you explain what you think he meant by that?

DD: I’m so glad that you brought this up! I think David was speaking to me as an older pianist, you know, mentoring me. Powell’s music is very compelling and complex. It’s satisfying on so many levels and has a kind of coherence that’s really attractive as a teacher and student, but I think David was criticizing the potential for jazz students to become so fixated on one or another period of the history, especially the bebop period, that they become sort of closed-minded to later developments and to some of the best musicians on the scene right now. For me, of course I love Bud Powell, but I also listen a great deal to many players who came along before and after him.

DR: Did you show your dissertation to any of your informants?

DD: I sent it to all of them. I went to see Tardo at Smalls a couple of weeks ago, and he saw me on his break and said, “I read it! The first thing I did was look up my name.” And then he sat down and played “Un Poco Loco,” and he played the crap out of it.


This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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