Review | The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. & Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman.

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop. By Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. Berkley: University of California Press, 2013. [ix, 254 p. ISBN 978-0-520-24391-0. Hardcover: $34.95]. 

Wail: The Life of Bud Powell. By Peter Pullman. Peter Pullman, LLC, 2012. [vii, 483 p. ISBN 978-0985141813. Paperback: $28]. 

Reviewed by Steve Beck / Rutgers University


Nearly fifty years after his untimely death at age forty-one, pianist-composer Bud Powell remains a foundational presence in jazz. Recently, Birdland celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of Powell’s birth with an all-star quintet. Two current publications explore Powell’s legacy as a musician and cultural figurehead. Collectively, these works also offer a fascinating example of contrasting approaches to jazz scholarship. 

Peter Pullman’s exhaustively researched if overlong Wail: The Life of Bud Powell began its life as an e-book. Known for his Grammy nominated work on the liner notes to Verve’s 1994 The Complete Bud Powell on Verve five CD box set, Pullman’s work seems the ideal guide to the pianist’s life and music. With Wail, he constructs a portrait of Powell that is simultaneously pathetic and sympathetic: the pianist experiences multiple hospitalizations, suffers under the dictatorial grip of Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards and the manipulation of Birdland proprietor (and one-time Powell custodian) Oscar Goodstein, and endures endless custody battles, seeking throughout his triumphs and tribulations to placate his addiction to alcohol.

Indeed, this portrait is known to most jazz musicians and historians as part of “the Powell legend.” To Pullman’s credit, he attempts with the greatest discernment to distinguish between that legend and fact. He provides interesting details about Powell’s pre-professional years, including his early tutelage under local pianist William F. Rawlins. He also interviews the right people, whether fellow musicians Jackie McLean and Walter Bishop, Jr. or patrons who witnessed Powell in a club playing at his peak or nadir. By extension, the author wisely relies on available historical records. Rather than simply reiterating the pianist’s condition as reported in the popular jazz press, Pullman goes directly to the source; crucially, he specifically uses numerous hospital reports when discussing Powell’s mental illness. The doctors and other medical professionals who examined Powell were often wholly unaware of his reputation as a pianist. As evidence of his medical condition as well as the perception of the medical world toward a black musician during the 1950s, these documents are particularly significant, and Pullman should be commended for exposing them to a wider public.

Given the breadth of detail and research in such a comprehensive work, it is unfortunate how thoroughly Pullman’s book disappoints. His pretentious though elucidated shortening of “African-American” and “European-American” to “afram” and “euram” (abbreviations peppered throughout the book) can perhaps be forgiven. By contrast, the extent to which the book reads as sophomoric is startling considering Pullman’s credentials. The following passage is sadly representative:

Powell was capable in this, his greatest period, of making adjustments, as a successful performer must do, depending on his environment. Those adjustments casual spectators, only seeing the seething pianist, bristling with ideas (and apocryphal blood spurting from his hand), doubted that Powell had in him. (127)

The origin of Wail as an e-book is pertinent to this criticism. On the web, Pullman’s book may read smoothly; however, the awkwardness of such writing on the printed page distracts from the extent of his research.

In addition, criticism of Pullman’s work need not be confined merely to style. In the process of dispelling the mythology of Powell, he reiterates myths about other musicians. Particularly distressing is his characterization of Oscar Peterson as a pianist with “formidable technical ability but no individual style” as well as his seemingly incessant reliance on a supposed (though unsubstantiated) rivalry between Powell and George Shearing. The latter type of mythologizing makes musicians cringe, especially those who recognize the wealth of Shearing’s contributions to jazz. Moreover, the focus of Pullman’s writing is often curious. Whereas he devotes significant space to Powell’s famous relationship with Francis Paudras, the author makes virtually no mention of the affect that Riche Powell’s tragic death had on his brother. He even chooses to relegate the passing of Powell’s mother to a footnote.

Additionally regrettable is Pullman’s method of citation. He does not provide a bibliography, and the end notes he does include are often sparse in their application. When Pullman does not provide citations, his scholarship becomes questionable. In a specific example found later in the work, he even invites the perception of character assassination. Discussing the supposed recollections of one Jens-Jørgen Thorsen upon hearing Powell in Copenhagen in 1962, Pullman relates that the European remembered “even Powell’s drinking was dignified, his consequent comportment making him ‘less black’” (317). Unconscionably, Pullman does not provide a source for this quote, and the reader is left to ponder whether Thorsen’s apparent reflection was intentionally racist.

Pullman’s work is not the product of a musical mind; unlike many non-musician authors of jazz texts, he admirably acknowledges as much. It is straight biography, and is not intended as an academic tome or musical analysis. By contrast, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.’s The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop reads like the scholarly text its title connotes. In this challenging and invigorating work, the professor of music and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania seeks to incorporate studies of historiography and cultural theory into his analysis of Powell. Ramsey’s enterprise involves the examination of Powell as a subject of discourse rather than straight biography, purporting to inform the reader about Powell through elucidating the mechanics of these discourses. He also includes detailed musical analysis of Powell’s playing, and the resulting study is exceedingly readable despite the potential for academic solemnity.

Ramsey’s work considers numerous discourses, among them the dynamics of race and gender, the critical emergence of jazz as “art music,” and the critical concept of the jazz audience against the backdrop of that emergence. For the author, an examination of Powell’s cultural milieu as well as scrutiny of scholarship pertaining to that world is as important to understanding the pianist’s life and work as data driven biography. Throughout the book, Ramsey makes trenchant insights regarding the ways in which these discourses influence our perception of Powell. Discussing “black genius,” Ramsey notes that

the very notion of Bud Powell’s genius designation unites several sometimes contradictory forces, including the act of projecting current ideas about genius onto the past, contemporaneous notions of African Americans’ abilities that circulated during bebop’s popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, and western culture’s historical beliefs about blacks’ intellectual and physical capacities. (88)

This work thus falls squarely within the category of New Jazz Studies, and it is to Ramsey’s credit that he is able to weave together such a mass of ideas while presenting an informative text.

Clearly, Ramsey’s book is about more than Bud Powell. Still, his exegesis calls into question whether or not it is also about something less. As a study of historiography and African-American studies, the work is perceptive, even brilliant. However, Powell as the focus of that study almost immediately recedes into the background. Ramsey never unambiguously addresses the question: why Bud Powell? His insights could equally apply to countless jazz musicians; indeed, he devotes important space to discussions of Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins within the context of these discourses. As a subject, Powell consequently transforms from a captivating figure to an arbitrary one, and the musical analysis found toward the end of the book correspondingly feels equally tacked on. Ramsey’s work is like a contrafact that completely eschews the original tune, becoming something of comparable complexity which nevertheless completely obscures its origins. In reading his book, we might be able to recognize some of the changes, but we can no longer hear the original melody. We certainly cannot remember the lyrics.

Despite these criticisms, both Pullman’s biography and Ramsey’s tome undoubtedly stand as required reading for anyone even remotely interested in Powell’s life and work. Their mere presence in a field sorely lacking in Powell scholarship warrants interest. Still, the reader should be cautioned to read each work as anything but holy writ. It is debatable whether or not Powell deserves better, but he certainly deserves more.



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