A Note on Bud Powell & Improvisation
I started glancing at Downbeat magazine, around 1951, when I was sixteen years old & a student at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. While I had been taking piano lessons initially from a neighborhood piano teacher & later from the concert pianist Ozan Marsh, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of jazz. I taped two quarters to a Downbeat order form & mailed it off for a 45 RPM recording with Lennie Tristano’s “I Surrender, Dear” on one side, & Bud Powell’s “Tea for Two” on the other.
The simple armature of that tune engulfed in improvisational glory roared through my Presbyterian stasis, sinking a depth charge into my soul-to-be. I listened to it again and again, trying to grasp the difference between the lyric & what Powell was doing to it. Somehow an idea vaguely made its way through: you don’t have to play someone else’s melody—you can improvise, make up your own tune! WOW—really? You mean, I don’t have to be my parents? I don’t have to “play their melody” for the rest of my life?
The alternative—being myself—was a stupendous enigma that took me another six years to begin to approach. I had to get completely bored with all the possibilities my given life had prepared me for (including playing the piano) before I could make a grab at something that challenged me to change my life.
Later I realized that Powell had taken the trivial in music (as Art Tatum did with “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and transformed it into an imaginative structure. William Carlos Williams, I noted, had done something similar in poetry. Alan Groves has written: “From 1947 to 1953 Powell was the supreme jazz pianist. These mature years produced some of the most startling piano ever recorded. Most of the best of his high-speed linear improvisations build toward a continuous driving climax. His lines would be based on a tune’s chordal structure but flowed independently of it.”
While reading the Sunday newspaper Comics on the living-room floor was probably my first encounter, as a boy, with imagination, Powell was my first encounter, as an adolescent, with the force of artistic presence, and certainly the key figure involved in my becoming a poet.
In my book The Gull Wall (Black Sparrow Press, 1975) I wrote a poem which brooded about Powell’s tragic life and about what he had offered me in 1951 which, in the writing of the poem, cut all the way back to the neighborhood piano teacher lessons my mother started me on when I was 6:
locked in his Paris bathroom so he wouldn’t wander.
Sipping his lunch from the cat
saucer on the floor.
I see him curled there, nursing his litter,
his great swollen dugs,
his sleepy Buddha face
looks down through the lotus pond,
sees the damned, astral miles below,
amongst them a little unmoving Clayton Jr.,
placed by his mother on a bed of keys.
Powell compassionately extended his tongue,
licked my laid out senses.
Concerning the imagery in this poem: in 1954, Altevia Edwards, nicknamed Buttercup, became Powell’s common-law wife and manager. She & Powell lived in Paris from 1959 to 1962, during which time Bud’s alcoholism nearly killed him. During this period, Buttercup collected his earnings, held his passport & papers, & denied him any real degree of independence. I read somewhere that when Buttercup would leave her & Powell’s hotel room she would lock him into the bathroom & deposit what she thought of as his lunch in a dish on the floor. This story was the source of some of the imagery in the poem just quoted, which also included my improvisation on what I understood to be Powell’s pathetic situation as well as his extraordinary gift to me.
In bebop, musical structures and performance events shift between fixed or unfixed aspects, sometimes occupying both simultaneously. For a pianist like Powell, rapid melodic lines in the right hand would be punctuated by irregularly spaced, dissonant chords in the left. Fixed aspects would include pre-existing harmonic sources, such as the chord progressions in “I Got Rhythm” whose original harmony became the basis for Powell’s “Bud’s Bubble,” his new improvised “melody,” so to speak. Other examples of well-known original harmonies & new, improvised melodies are “Cherokee” as the basis for “Koko,” and “How High the Moon” for “Ornithology.”
Rounding the gym track listening to WEMU.
Suddenly Sonny Stitt entangles “Koko” with my mental vines.
“Cherokee” lyrics, schlock “Indian romance,”
pulled inside out by “Koko,” “Cherokee’s” vital ghost.
In the mid-1980s I wrote a sestina fantasia based on Powell’s eleven month hospitalization in 1947 in the Creedmore State Hospital where he was administered two series of electroshocks. It is said that he drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell so that he could mentally keep up his chops while incarcerated. In my poem I used material from the Odyssey as my “original harmony,” & envisioned Powell as a kind of Tiresias in the Odyssey’s Book Eleven as my “new melody”. Since a concert grand with raised lid resembles (from the position of the audience seated before it) a headless bison, I had Powell in the poem attempting to imbibe blood-like sustenance from his sketched “bison keyboard.”
The Bison Keyboard
Onto the keyboard of a concert grand Bud Powell shot his fingers
Was he, elbows flexed, a kind of Tiresias drinking from a trench
beheaded bison blood?
Are we not, at birth, like bison, deposited on a terrestrial keyboard?
Each depressed key makes an omen trench.
Thus does the earth become grand
& we suck, with Tiresias intensity, as did infant Powell, to prophesy.
Powell is face to face with a bison apparition, a lacquered black
Unlike Tiresias, he must draw, through a keyboard, directional sound,
& even if he has a grand it is hardly a trench of warm blood.
To be a seer is to re-enter the trench out of which we emerged.
Powell made contact, but failed to drink.
For a grand, in profile, lid propped, evokes a headless bison,
whose chest cavity, the keyboard, releases sound Tiresias needed
blood to utter.
And Tiresias, who re-entered the essential trench, did guide
At the keyboard, Powell clawed for blood, as if stabbing at a bison
Thus he proposes a grand dilemma: the living, no matter how grand
their C chords,
lack the Tiresian recipe: to be all soul & bison vivid, a
cunnilinctrice of the goddess trench.
On his cell wall in Creedmore asylum, Powell is said to have
sketched, in chalk, a keyboard.
Powell, now the ghost of a grand, stared at this keyboard.
“O how get home, Tiresias? How drink bison music in this hellish