Bud Powell

bud powellBud Powell is one of the most influential jazz pianists of all time, and the first pianist to begin to experiment with the bebop style. His style came from the famous jazz horn players of the time, most notably Charlie Parker, with whom he worked with on several occasions and also had a long standing rivalry and competed with constantly.

The most amazing thing about Powell’s musical career was that he able to be such an outstanding player and so influential, despite suffering from many mental problems including schizophrenia. He spent almost a third of his adult life locked away in mental institutions. Most of his career was spent playing in the jazz nightclubs of New York City, although he did spend four years playing in front of adoring audiences in Paris towards the end of his career.

Powell grew up playing classical piano, but soon found himself drawn towards jazz, and quickly began to learn the stride style popularized by earlier pianists such as Art Tatum. He quickly fell in with the New York jazz club scene when he was still underage, and it was there that he started to be influenced by the early bebop players such as Charlie Parker.

It was under the tutelage of Thelonious Monk that he really started to develop his own unique style of piano playing, which is very evident in most of his later recordings. Most recordings featuring Powell are with him as part of a trio, and he recorded quite a few records with some of the other most famous jazz musicians of the time, including Parker and Miles Davis.

The most notable recordings of his career were probably made after a long period of repeated hospitalizations that ended in 1949. It was from 1949 to 1953 that Powell recorded for both Blue Note Records and Mercury, Norgran, and Clef, and these recordings are generally considered his best. His career and life then slowly went into a downward spiral, and he was again repeatedly hospitalized, although he continued to perform and record up until his death in 1966.


bud powell at the pianoEarl ‘Bud’ Powell is a famous jazz musician who is considered to be the most important and influential jazz pianists of all time. Bud Powell was born in Harlem, New York City on September 27, 1924. Powell’s father was also a pianist and helped introduce him to the piano and music in general. At the age of five, Powell’s father hired a teacher and Powell started taking lessons in classical piano.

Powell continued to take lessons in classical piano, but by age ten he was already starting to become more interested in jazz and was able to imitate his idols like Fats Waller and Art Tatum. At the age of 15, he was playing in his older brother William’s band, but it wasn’t until a few years later that he really got started in the jazz world.

It was at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City that an underage Powell started to really be exposed to jazz on an almost nightly basis. The greatest influence on Powell’s musical career and playing style was Thelonious Monk, who would later become one of his best friends as well. The two met in 1942, and Monk took him under his wing and introduced Powell to a circle of bebop musicians who would further influence his playing style.

During the early 1940’s, Bud Powell played and toured with Cootie Williams dance orchestra, and was featured on several of their recordings, including the first ever recording of Monk’s song “Round Midnight” in 1944. Powell continued to play in Manhattan for the next few years and was soon in high demand. He is featured on many prominent recordings made around 1945 and 1946, but it wasn’t until 1947 that his career really began to skyrocket.

That year, Powell was chosen by Charlie Parker to play piano in a quintet that featured other very prominent jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis. Of these recordings, Powell’s style was most prominent on “Donna Lee.” It was also during 1947 that Powell first recorded in a trio with himself, bassist Curley Russell, and drummer Max Roach.

Most music historians consider Powell’s best recordings to be those he made during the Blue Note sessions, sometimes as a trio and sometimes solo. It was during the second Blue Note session in 1951 that Powell, Roach, and Russell recorded “Un Poco Loco” which is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz recordings ever made.

bud powell trioPowell continued to play in New York throughout the 1950’s, but his talent was beginning to be hampered by his schizophrenia. He later moved to Paris for a few years, but returned to New York in 1964 after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He died in New York on July 31, 1966 from cirrhosis of the liver due to his life long battle with alcoholism, and thousands attended his funeral procession in Harlem.

His mental problems caused him to be hospitalized in mental institutions throughout his life, but Bud Powell continued to play piano and write music up until the last years of his life. Despite all of this and the fact that he died at age 41, he is still considered to be one of the best jazz pianists of all time and ranks up there with his mentor and friend Thelonious Monk.

Musical Style

Bud Powell is referred to as one of the fathers of modern jazz piano due to his unique and influential musical style. He was also one of founders of the jazz style known as bebop, along with saxophone player Charlie Parker and trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. Powell was the first to take Charlie Parker’s fast paced bebop style and adapt it to the piano. This has led some to believe he was merely attempting to copy the bebop style use by the famous horn players of the time.

His use of the horn player’s style was very evident in his use of his right hand to play extremely fast, attacking melodies that were designed to resemble the style of Parker’s saxophone. He has even been criticized for using his right hand too much, at the expense of his left. Still, he was most famous for his incredibly fast speed and tempo.

Powell wanted the jazz pianist to receive the same kind of adulation and respect that had previously only been reserved for the horn players. This allowed him to be very progressive and often led to brilliant solos in the Manhattan and Paris nightclubs where he spent most of his career.

However, Powell was also influenced by the earlier stride style of jazz that he grew up with. As a child, he learned to imitate his favorite jazz pianists like Fats Waller and the virtuoso style of Art Tatum. He was also mentored by Thelonious Monk, and this again helped influence his style of playing. Despite his use of fast, attacking melodies, the stride style he grew up with was also very evident in his playing.

Before Powell, Art Tatum and Earl Hines were the only two pianists to ever come close to playing the same sort of jazz piano that he did. Still after him, jazz piano would never be the same, and the bebop style he helped create would go on to influence almost every style of jazz that has been created since.

Videos and Recordings

The Bud Powell Trio playing Confirmation from the album Bud Plays Bird.

Parisian Thoroughfare:

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