Where’s Borderick?

by
Kevin Whitehead

Till 2012 there was an odd dearth of authoritative books on Bud Powell; before, the most notable volumes were Francis Paudras’ memoir Dance of the Infidels, and Alan Groves and Alyn Shipton’s skimpy The Glass Enclosure. The latter was published in 1993, not long before Peter Pullman resolved to write a definitive biography, which stemmed from his documentary work on a 1994 Powell Verve roundup. The recent, concurrent publication of Pullman’s Wail: The Life of Bud Powell (Bop Changes) and Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.’s The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop (University of California Press/Chicago: Center for Black Music Research) effectively doubles the number of detailed accounts of the pianist’s life and art.

The broad outlines of the towering bebop pianist’s life were clear. Compared to what Bud went through, Clint Eastwood’s Bird is light musical comedy. Monk’s gifted young running buddy had the chops to apply Charlie Parker’s lithe grace and wit to the keyboard, and no shortage of self-confidence; he’d nudge other pianists off the bench whenever he had the itch to play. But Powell was never the same after Philadelphia railroad cops beat him severely in 1945. He became even more withdrawn and uncommunicative than he’d been, and was institutionalized a few times afterwards, at Creedmoor and Pilgrim State hospitals. Over the years he was diagnosed with whatever ailment was trendy at the time.

He still knew the keyboard so well he never looked at it, but his playing became more erratic and inconsistent, and stayed that way; he might get disoriented (or frustrated) on AABA tunes, repeating the bridge. In 1959 he moved to Paris where he was eventually befriended and looked after by fan Francis Paudras. Five years later Bud returned to New York to play an engagement for his old manager Oscar Goodstein at Birdland. Powell chose to remain in New York, where he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1966, at 41.

That’s the bare bones; Pullman puts the meat on them. He’s a tireless researcher – he sued an agency of New York state to gain access to Powell’s medical records, and goes deep into Bud’s almost uniformly bleak interactions with the mental health establishment. Pullman conducted many dozens of interviews on two continents and over the phone. (I put him up for a few days in Amsterdam in 1997 while he was researching there, but haven’t seen him since.)

He’s one of those biographers who puts in everything he turned up. That’s not always the right approach, but there’s good cause for it here, beyond future researchers’ benefit, because so much inaccurate information surrounded Powell during his lifetime. Musicians who worked with him sometimes assumed he’d just been released from the sanitarium in order to make the gig, when that wasn’t the case. (His 1953 Birdland stand did immediately follow a year and a half at Creedmoor.) Pullman is good with facts – I spotted only a couple of trivial errata. Anyone who cares about Powell will want to read it.

That said, Wail is a bit of a slog, exhausting as well as exhaustive; I can’t recall a more sour biography of a major jazz figure. Powell knew more than his share of scoundrels, including Goodstein, and Bud’s bullying nightmare of a companion from the mid-‘50s, Altevia “Buttercup” Edwards, who pressed him to declare himself her son’s father (he wasn’t), carried on with other men in plain view, and (according to Paudras, no fan of Butter’s) once badgered Powell for money under threat of re-institutionalization.

But these bad folk seem to have turned Bud’s chronicler into a misanthrope. Few people in Powell’s life, even advocates, seem worthy of him – not his mother (freeloader) or the mother of his daughter Cecilia, Mary Barnes, who took him back after he returned to the States (neglectful), not Paudras (falsifying the record, to appear to be friends with Bud longer than he was), not even kind and devoted superfan and journalist Randi Hultin (incensed a tune Bud wrote for her appeared on record without a dedication). I seldom defend Leonard Feather, but to describe the point of blindfold tests as “getting musicians to say insulting or embarrassing things about their colleagues” [382] is less than strictly accurate.

Pullman has listened to all the airchecks, reconstructing Bud’s Birdland appearances, and he goes into the circumstances of the studio dates, without mentioning every performance or composition. (No mention of the uncharacteristically chipper earworm “Borderick” from The Scene Changes.) Wail describes Powell’s development well, documenting his debt to (and uneasy relationship with) Bird, and confirming his roots in Tatum’s virtuosity and, by inference, Billy Kyle’s elliptical left hand. (But Pullman’s notion that blindness kept Tatum from cuing other musicians on the stand is curious – as if they were blind too). Pullman is no musicologist, and doesn’t get too deep in the weeds, but there are other places to go for a technical discussion.

The author had worked as an editor on various Polygram liner notes, but he is not a lively stylist, and has a few distracting quirks. He doesn’t like referring to people as black or white, so he’s coined the terms afram and euram, which slow you down every time you encounter them. (Capitalizing them would have helped.) He’s also on a crusade against the definite article when connected to proper nouns – so the club whose sign outside called it The Onyx is referred to only as Onyx, and the Harlem spot whose menu identified as The Uptown House is invariably Uptown House. (Signage and menu can be seen in Frank Driggs’ photo book Black Beauty, White Heat.) Not even 125th street’s Apollo gets a the, to distinguish it from lesser Apollo Theaters in Chicago, Peoria and Buffalo. (But 52nd is still “the Street.”)

These solipsistic solecisms slow the reader up, although that glitchiness ingeniously/unwittingly conveys a sense of Bud-like dislocation, of standing at a slight angle to the world. The article-dropping gives the prose an English-as-second-language tinge, obeying the rules while grating against common usage. “Roost was almost immediately successful, and the next year it spawned the even bigger Bop City, which [Ralph] Watkins moved Roost’s bebop acts to, while he continued to feature other jazz talent at Roost.” [99]

The chapters lack titles that might aid readers’ navigation (and the index could be better; Billy Kyle didn’t make the cut). In the print version, block quotes appear in approximately eight-point type: small. Granted, it’s a big book as it is: the main text is 400 pages, and there is more detail in 60 pages of footnotes. Frustrating as Wail can be, it has instantly become the standard work on Powell.

Pullman presents all he’s unearthed in hopes of fathoming the unfathomable man. To the author’s credit he doesn’t (often) pretend to read the mind of an African American of immeasurable talent, who was subjected to beatings, browbeatings, condescension and misunderstanding, knavery, straitjacketing, induced grand-mal seizures (21 by electroshock, 11 via insulin), a sham marriage orchestrated by manager Goodstein to exert even more control, and no end of chemical cures, including self-prescribed ones. That’s not an easy mind to inhabit.

* * *

Tidily enough, Guthrie P. Ramsey’s The Amazing Bud Powell begins right when Wail leaves off, at the pianist’s death. And one long final chapter plugs a hole in Pullman’s discussion, getting down to musicological cases with a few recorded solos, transcriptions, bitonal superimpositions, substitute chord progressions and compositions from the 1940s, beginning with “Floogie Boo” and “Perdido” from Bud’s time in Cootie Williams’ band, lighting out for the swing-to-bop border. Ramsey pays particular attention to Bud’s solos on 1947’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and 1946’s “Long Tall Dexter,” and the melodic construction of “Dexter Rides Again,” co-credited to Gordon and Powell. He analyzes the harmonic structure of “Bebop in Pastel” and “Fool’s Fancy” (and “Bud’s Bubble,” actually Benny Harris’s “Little Benny”), the subdivided forms and long harmonic arcs revealing “an extremely orderly and disciplined mind ... deftly balancing predictability and surprise.” [181] You wish Ramsey had kept going in this vein, straight into the 1950s. (There’s nary a sign of “Borderick.”)

That extended discussion is valuable, but fate dealt Ramsey a bad hand. He’d been working for years on this study expanded from his doctoral dissertation, and was readying the text for publication just as Wail appeared as an ebook, giving him little time to consider its new information. (There are what look like hasty fixes; on page 3, Powell gets booked into Birdland in 1964 on returning to the States; on the following page, per Pullman, the gig was the reason for the trip.) After Wail, Ramsey’s biographical sketches feel thin and unnuanced. At one point, he argues that Buttercup’s bad reputation is a product of simple sexism, but Pullman offers enough examples of her bad behavior to undercut that theory. One hopes Ramsey will get to revise the book in time, in light of all this new information.

But The Amazing Bud Powell’s problems go beyond that, and I mention them not to knock Ramsey but to pinpoint some recurring problems with academic (jazz) writing, offered in a friendly spirit from someone who’s learned much from scholars like Scott DeVeaux, George E. Lewis and Sherrie Tucker. Those problems start with an aversion to getting to or sticking to the point. Ramsey is hardly the first to gear up to his subject with an epic bout of throat clearing, telling you what he’s going to tell you before he tells it, taking time to explain that to really understand Powell’s art, you’ve got to grasp the social context – as if anyone picking his book up might not get that. Even on page 42, he’s still telling what he intends to tell, and he’s just getting warmed up.

Since context is required, Ramsey takes us on extended tours of the emergence of bebop (including some familiar episodes only tangentially related to Powell, like Bird and Diz at Billy Berg’s), and developments in jazz historiography from the 1930s to the ‘60s (where the author’s father-in-law Amiri Baraka is the central presence). But Ramsey never really brings either discussion back to Bud – he keeps circling a field obscured by fog, unable to land. Changing a few specific references, one could plug those chapters into a book about any number of boppers, or jazz musicians generally. Ramsey gets a little slapdash, too, as when he refers to “Benny Goodman, whom history has dubbed ‘The King of Swing’.” [52] Actually that was Time magazine, in 1937. Bernard Stollman is consistently (well, twice) identified as Strollman, and Bubber Miley as Bubba.

Mysteriously, Jazz Studies tradition demands invoking that jazz-hating crank Teddy Adorno. But Ramsey deftly pinpoints how ass-backwards Adorno got it. For him, amateur listeners recognizing the template of a tune’s form under the spontaneous variations was an act of lowbrow dumbing-down, not a sophisticated process of abstraction. At other times, Ramsey lapses into boilerplate Jazz Studiesisms: “Powell’s genius, then, was staged in multifaceted and deeply historical social orders, structures, and systems of thought and creativity that gave his aesthetic agency a powerful and singular voice in jazz history.” [119]

Part of the author’s agenda is to celebrate Jazz Studies itself. Early on he argues Powell’s music has remained important for three reasons: his great influence on other pianists, the continuing devotion of fans, and “the scholarly analysis that it (and the work of his colleagues) has stimulated.” [19] The first two points are plainly true. Regarding the last point, the parenthetical qualifier in that quote does all the lifting. Even DeVeaux’s essential The Birth of Be-Bop barely mentions Powell, who came along a split second later. The footnotes to Ramsey’s musicological chapter don’t point to Powell-specific sources either. This third point may exemplify an unfortunate rhetorical device occasionally encountered in Jazz Studies papers: Proof by Assertion.

© 2013 Kevin Whitehead

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