Burning Down the House

Bud Powell Anthology

1) Burning Down the House

2) High Bebop

3) The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of

4) Crossing the Channel

Leonard Feather, introducing “52 St. Theme” at a Royal Roost Jam session in 1948:

For our next musician, he’s a young fellow who’s been almost a legendary figure in Bop circles ever since he was twenty years old. He was the first pianist to play real Bop on records, in 1944 with Cootie Williams’ band, and he’s the favorite Bop pianist of every other Bop pianist. Maybe you remember him from some of the great sessions up at Minton’s years ago, or maybe he’s new to you. But anyway, let’s lose no time in introducing the Bop king of the keyboard, Earl “Bud” Powell!

In his intense improvised line, Bud’s imagination occasionally outdistances his mechanism. These momentary imperfections are part of a deliberately unpolished aesthetic—a “raw” sensibility that he shared with his friend and teacher, Thelonious Monk.

It’s an approach that stems from blues and stride, not to mention beating out-of-tune uprights into submission at noisy jam sessions. For Monk and Powell, rhythm transcends pitch. They both sound great on a good piano, but there are times when they sound even better on an upright. Still, Monk sounds practically note-perfect in comparison to Bud, who probably played the most “fluffs” of anyone equally great.

Oscar Peterson rejected those wrong notes, calling Bud “uneven and unfinished.” But for Bud’s fans, the “fluffs” help communicate the urgent spirituality of the message. The lines seem torn from the innards of the pianist.

The very first Powell solos with Cootie Williams include tiny fragments on  “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Blue Garden Blues,” and “Floogie Boo.” (A standard, a blues, and rhythm changes: forms that will be Powell’s bread and butter his whole life.) The pianist is 20 years old.

Bud Honeysuckle

Bud on Blue Garden

Bud on floogie boo

When you compare these bursts of young  Powell with the other pianists trying to play bop in 1944, it’s easy to understand why his peers loved him immediately.

Two extremely rare live blues tracks with Williams are even more fascinating. It would be very hard to guess either of these in a blindfold test as Bud Powell.

Powell’s beat and down-home accompaniment on “West End Blues” is terrific. (The bassist is unknown.)

A virtuoso solo on “Royal Garden Blues” is like a chorus of Art Tatum/Earl Hines and a chorus of Milt Buckner.

The first really great Powell is a tiny solo on “September in the Rain” from May 1945 with the Frank Socolow Quintet. Hard on the heels of the first two Monkish notes, Bud’s bop language is now in full flower. The way he places the line inside the beat is deeply swinging.

September in the Rain.jpg

Ira Gitler has a helpful word: “continuity.” In professional bebop players, the phrases go next to each other in a way you don’t expect, yet they also make sense. Bop is “discontinuous” compared to earlier jazz. Think about the distance jazz piano traveled from the clear, riffing, predictable patterns of boogie and stride to Powell on “September in the Rain.”

In 1946 Powell began to appear much more on records, including half a dozen early bop sessions with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Jay Jay Johnson, Fats Navarro, and Kenny Clarke. For Freddie Redd and Barry Harris, “Webb City” with Navarro was it.

Webb City 1Webb City 2

You can find agitation and soul on any of Powell’s 1946 sessions. Two solos with Sonny Stitt are particularly fine:

fool's fancy

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In early 1947, Powell made his first trio date for Roost with Max Roach and Curly Russell (although it didn’t come out until later).

When Henri Renaud asked Powell who his favorite pianist was in a French interview, Bud said, “Al Haig. He’s my idea of a perfect pianist.”

Haig’s most famous trio date is trio with Bill Crow and Lee Abrams in 1954, an album of top-drawer cocktail music: great voicings, singing melody, everything in its right place, no deep emotions in sight.

Perhaps this is the side of Haig that Powell appreciated. On the Roost trio with Russell and Roach, Bud tries for some of that cocktail-style ballad stuff himself. The problem is that Bud overpedals and the melody isn’t always clear. The harmony is the saving grace; Bud’s harmonic imagination is always interesting. But ballads like “I Should Care” and “Everything Happens to Me” are frustrating, and even swingers like “I’ll Remember April” and “Somebody Loves Me” verge on corny.

Later on Powell would be more confident in the studio. And even on his first album there is no criticism to make when Bud plays faster and tougher.

Wynton Kelly must have learned the solo on “Bud’s Bubble.”

Bubble 1

Bubble 2

Bud’s first record offers a rendition of “Off Minor” that predates Monk’s own in October. The melody is different than in Monk’s versions: Indeed, for the bridge it seems like Bud doesn’t even play a melody, just chords. Nice solo, though. Ben Street pointed out to me that at the beginning of the avant-garde bridge it “seems like it is going backwards and forwards at the same time.”

Off Minor bridge

Also authentically Thelonious is “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” which Monk again also recorded in October. Probably the G-flat ending came from Monk’s imagination he gave it to Bud. Both pianists played this song throughout their careers. It’s where they sound most like each other.

Powell’s only other 1947 recording is with Charlie Parker, discussed in the next post.

We don’t get to hear Powell again until the end of 1948, where he plays in a few tracks at a Royal Roost jam session with Benny Harris, J.J. Johnson, Buddy DeFranco, Lee Konitz, Budd Johnson, Cecil Payne, Chuck Wayne, Nelson Boyd, and Max Roach.

Powell is easily the greatest soloist present, and he also plays a stunning introduction to each piece. The “Powell intro” is one of the hardest things to do in jazz piano. While first chair Powell disciple Barry Harris does it well consistently, there aren’t too many others who have it at the ready. Herbie Hancock, a musician usually comfortable with anything and everything, sounds just a little flustered trying to do a “Powell intro” in the front of “Una Noche Con Francis” for the soundtrack to Round Midnight.  It’s probably something you need to do every day if you want to keep it in your back pocket.

Lee Konitz gets two fascinating solos on “Jumping with Symphony Sid” and “Ornithology,” but Bud seems determined to derail him. (Bud’s even worse behind the other white horn player, Buddy De Franco.)

The Leonard Feather intro at the top of this post leads into Powell’s feature on “52 Street Theme,” the first longer Powell solo on record. The crowd is cacophonous: is Feather whooping up the audience, saying “Go Bud, go!?” To my ears Bud responds to the atmosphere with a few party tricks, not just pure continuity. It’s easy to forgive Bud for playing to the gallery, for the overall velocity and articulation would stop any pianist in their tracks. I only took down the first two choruses, as it’s very hard to hear.

52nd 1

52nd 2

In early 1949 Bud recorded for Verve with Ray Brown and Max Roach. “Tempus Fugit,” “Celia,” and “Cherokee” are arguably Powell’s greatest studio trio tracks. This troika was my own gateway into Powell via college co-conspirator Eddy Hobizal.

It’s hard to understand why Powell never recorded “Celia” or “Tempus Fugit” again, for they are two of his finest compositions.

As great as the compositions are, the improvisations in the troika are even more important. This is the highest level of jazz piano performance. Students should definitely learn these three solos.

“Celia” was for his newborn daughter, and the piece is comparatively relaxed.

Celia 1

Celia 2

The frankly menacing “Tempus Fugit” might have Powell’s answer to the minor key Gillespie tune, “Bebop”: Compare the similar intros.

Powell’s left hand is always a nearly non-improvised litany of folkloric thumps, perhaps a combination of clave and stride. On “Tempus” the left is particularly rogue, smashing the drone like a demented conga, ignoring the changes. Fabulous.

(Note: None of the transcriptions are that accurate to begin with, but when the left hand is notated, look out! I’m just guessing much of the time.)

Tempus 1Tempus 2Tempus 3Tempus 4

“Cherokee” takes on “Koko” in a battle to see who can snake the most discontinuous continuity out of 64 bars, Bud or Bird.

Unlike modern musicians, neither Bird and Bud relied on an A-flat dominant in the A sections. They mostly only play E-flat minor sixth or minor-major seventh. This keeps the 16 bars in B-flat, especially if the bass motion goes to tonic first inversion after E-flat minor.

All of us who have played A-flat seven for years haven’t realized we are implying moving to D-flat.

It’s not wrong to play A-flat dominant, and I’m really just joking about D-flat, but having learned the Bud/Bird way, it’s hard to go back to the more “modern” version.

Bud almost always makes C dominant (near the end of the A sections) an altered or tense quality. Again, this seems to keep it closer to the home key:  a bland C ninth doesn’t need to resolve so urgently. Bud’s harmonic chiaroscuro is faultless.

cherokee 1Cherokee 2cherokee 3cherokee 4Cherokee 5cherokee 6

All of the improvisations in the troika conclude with a short phrase that releases the tension, a casually devastating judo chop.

There are several other great trio tracks for Verve in 1949 and 1950, plus a handful of brilliant 1951 solos. This body of work sits comfortably on the single disc, Jazz Giant. If you have never owned a Bud Powell CD, this is the one to get.

Two of Powell’s most distinctive and magical attributes are the vocal quality of his improvised line and the complexity of his rhythm. He can fluff his piano line, but his singing is never fluffed. The line is always vocal. He plays what he hears. I read somewhere that horn players complain they can’t play like Powell: “Where would I breathe?” Actually, Powell always breathes. He’s singing, so he must breathe. It’s the lesser children of Powell who create breathless cascades of sound that have more in common with player-piano music than jazz.

Powell’s singing right-hand line is usually centered just behind the beat, whereas the left hand drives the beat. The right doesn’t submit to the left, the line stays lurking in the most swinging part of the beat. The solo tracks are a good place to marvel at the friction. “The Fruit” actually slows down a tiny bit even though the left is hurtling along.

Zakir Hussain once told me that when he heard Elvin Jones, he imagined an older locomotive starting up. The different-sized cylinders and pistons begin by fighting each other but eventually resolve their contrasting sizes and power forward. Bud is exactly the same way. The minute differences in rhythm between the hands create a heavily swinging vortex.

That vortex operates the same way solo or trio, which is part of why the personnel of Bud’s trios are less important to him than they are for most other pianists. There are exceptions: George Duvivier worked hard at always playing with Bud’s left hand. Roy Haynes played the most excitingly interactive drums with Bud live. On Jazz Giant, Max plays some of his special language on the fast pieces.

In the liner notes to the Verve box, Michael Weiss makes the observation that Bud’s left hand got a bit higher later. Bud always played more low roots than most modern pianists, but he did eventually lighten up compared to what he plays on Jazz Giant. Still, I’ve never heard a Powell performance where he sounds influenced by his bassist. That was strictly a one-way street. It would be hard to get away Bud’s left hand on “Cherokee” today.

In August 1948 “Bud Powell’s Modernists” recorded four tunes for Blue Note. “Modernist” is right: this is tough, demanding music, nearly unfit for civilians.

Bud plays best on the very difficult altered blues changes of “Dance of the Infidels.” “52 Street Theme” isn’t as good as the live one from the Roost, and perhaps the piano solos on “Bebop in Pastel” and “Fool’s Fancy” from earlier Stitt sessions are better then on the freshly-titled “Bouncing with Bud” and “Wail.”

Not to say that this music isn’t essential. Sonny Rollins is already a master at 19. Fats Navarro plays great too, as does Roy Haynes. It’s really too bad this is the only example of Powell leading a band with horns. What might have happened to jazz history if Powell had kept writing quintet music?

With the exception of three standards with Curtis Fuller and a handful of solos, the rest of Bud Powell on Blue Note are trios. There’s plenty of astonishing music, including many original compositions. Overall, the complete Blue Note box is more consistent than the complete Verve box, which gets bogged down in Bud’s most depressing records of standards from ’54-’56.

The troika of “Cherokee,” “Celia,” and “Tempus Fugit” aside, Bud wasn’t usually at his best in the studio. The live material is what Powell disciples need to hunt down and acquire.

Not long after the Modernists recorded, Powell took part in a jam session at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve 1949, along with Miles Davis, Bennie Green, Sonny Stitt, Serge Chaloff, Curly Russell, and Max Roach.  As he did at the Royal Roost a year earlier, the pianist streamrolls over the hapless horn soloists, especially on “Move.” The horns either flap around or play in half-time, unable to navigate the fast tempo, after which Bud shows them how bebop is really played.

Bud is featured on an astonishing trio version of “All God’s Children Got Rhythm.” As with “52 Street Theme” at the Roost, it has crowd-wowing effects, so there’s less of a reason to transcribe it. Almost no one has heard it, however, so:

Bud Powell, Curly Russell, Max Roach, 1949:

Nice out-of-tune piano at Carnegie Hall! Must only be jazz musicians on stage tonight, huh? No reason to tune the piano for them, especially since most of them are black.

There are about three full CDs of live Bud Powell trio from 1953 in Washington D.C. or Birdland. This is a treasure trove of perfect piano playing.

After Jazz Giant, I nominate The Inner Fires of Bud Powell as the most essential Powell CD. We are so lucky that Bill Potts turned on his tape recorder on a Sunday afternoon at Club Kavakos in Washington, D.C. For once, the bandmates really matter. You can’t hear Mingus all that well, but nonetheless something mysterious and provocative is coming from the bass space. Roy Haynes offers up some of the loudest and busiest drumming documented in a piano trio from that era. It’s a rare case of the piano improvisations being nearly subservient to the band identity on a Powell recording. The vibe is very intense and swinging throughout, mostly at a tempos just fast enough to make the articulation of swing a virtuoso proposition.

“Woody ‘N You” is particularly striking. Powell’s solutions to navigating the chains of half-diminished II/Vs are fresher than anybody’s.

Woody 'n 1Woody 2Woody 3

In the Forties it seemed like “52 Street Theme” was Bud’s choice for the ultimate barnburner on rhythm changes. In the Fifties it was “Salt Peanuts.” The Club Kavakos has Bud’s longest recorded statement about “Salt Peanuts”: in Potts’s words, Bud “wails the hell out of” nine choruses.

They are wailing on “Salt Peanuts” down in D.C., but up at up at Birdland with Mingus and Haynes they played it even faster. Unlike the live “52 St Theme” and “All God’s Children” discussed above, there are no party tricks. It’s pure continuity. The final two “judo chop” chords complete the statement. In terms of spiritual commitment to blowing on uptempo rhythm changes, no pianist has seriously ever touched Bud. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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The rest of ’53 Birdland Bud has been bootleg in various forms for half a century.  Boris Rose was the taper responsible not just for these Birdland trio dates but also for the night of Bird-Bud-Navarro discussed in the next post.

A lot of tunes are repeated, usually with different rhythm sections. When you compare the five “Dance of the Infidels” solos you can really see what Bud was up to. At times his beat has a lighter, almost striding movement, perhaps connected to an older player like Teddy Wilson or Billy Kyle.

There’s a little “call” that opens every solo the same way. (Later on in Europe, versions of “Anthropology” or “Shaw ‘Nuff” always also begin with special “calls.”) However, the amount of improvising that follows each call is rather surprising. I honestly expected to be able to cut and paste a bit, but no, I worked for every bar. Despite the confines of an authentic, folkloric language, Powell’s fluidity is seemingly limitless.


Among so many great solos trio at Birdland, Stanley Crouch advocates for the long rhapsody of “Lover Come Back To Me,” in part because Jimmy Heath told him that this track gives a sense of what it was like to hear Bud live. The tune is not actually “Lover Come Back to Me”: It uses that progression, but the bop melody is “Bean and the Boys” by Coleman Hawkins. (The melody of the last A is included in the recorded excerpt).

This is very dense and convoluted phrasing. You can’t really get much more “discontinuous.”

bean 1bean 2bean 3

That’s about it for prime bebop Powell on record before he moved to Europe except for the dates with Bird.

There’s only one more pair of sessions that should be included on this page, which are the quartets with Sonny Stitt from late ’49 and early ’50. Powell fanciers have long considered this to be some of his best studio work. Of all the occasions Powell recorded a variant of “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” this is a personal favorite.

All Gods 1all gods 2All gods 3

There’s also a blues solo so funky that it’s almost not bebop.

Bud's BLues.jpg

Stitt is wonderful on these recordings but there’s no doubt that the pianist shines brighter. It’s too bad we don’t have a Charlie Parker/Bud Powell quartet studio recording that’s just as exposed as these dates with Stitt. Wonder why there isn’t one:

[go on to the next post]