"Bud Powell, idiot savant of the jazz piano"
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, August 5, 1998)

Listening to Bud Powell's adventurous and confident piano playing in the 1940s and 1950s, it was hard to believe the rumours that swirled around him: people said he was emotionally helpless in most situations, he sometimes cracked up completely, and for long periods he was forcibly confined in a mental hospital. Powell was among the shining stars of bebop when it emerged from Harlem as the great American art music of the period, but he lived a private life of intense melancholy and terrifying confusion. He was a child-man and, like his friend and colleague Charlie Parker, a relentless self-destroyer.

His troubles could briefly disappear when he performed. On May 15, 1953, Powell played a concert in Toronto with Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. It was a remarkable occasion, the first and last time those five men appeared together. A live recording, Jazz at Massey Hall, has won it a reputation as history's greatest jazz concert. In my memory of the evening, Powell remains the most compelling player, a bubbling fountain of crystal intelligence and ferocious energy.

No one quite understood his illness, partly because he avoided doctors whenever he could. Some stories suggest autism: "He barely speaks and between pieces seems lost in a dream," a French critic wrote in 1954. If left alone, he might wander off and live in the streets for days. Working in Paris in the sixties, he would elude his keepers and beg for drinking money outside bars; by then his liver was so damaged that two glasses of wine made him drunk. Several psychiatrists called him schizophrenic. When he was treated for tuberculosis at a sanatorium in France, a doctor wrote: "Psychologically, he was like an infant."

In his actual childhood Powell was musically and mathematically brilliant, but also eccentric and lonely. His troubles apparently grew much worse when a policeman's club injured his head during an argument in a bar. That was in 1945, when he was 20. Intense headaches followed, but in this same period he helped invent bebop -- a term, incidentally, that he never liked. (He would have preferred something that suggested a serious purpose.)

Powell's personality was merged with Lester Young's to create the Dexter Gordon character in 'Round MidnightF, Bertrand Tavernier's beautiful 1986 film about black American musicians in Paris. The young fan who tries to save the jazzman from himself, Francis, was based on Francis Paudras, a graphic artist and amateur pianist who took charge of Powell's life for three years in the sixties. Paudras's account of their relationship, published in France in 1986, is now finally translated into English as Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell (Da Capo Press, $26.50).

Paudras's own story ended in tragedy. He founded a society called Jazz Memories, collected tapes and other memorabilia, and turned a historic French mansion into jazz shrine. And there, last November, before the American edition of Dance of the Infidels went to press, he killed himself, at age 62. An obituary in a Paris jazz magazine hinted at a dispute with the French jazz community involving his use of the materials he controlled.

Dance of the Infidels (that's the name of Powell's theme tune) unintentionally suggests several possible sources of trouble. Paudras insists far too often on his own honesty and selflessness, and he packs into the story a heavy charge of self-righteous anger. In telling the story, he seems to believe he knew what was right for Powell (who did in fact die of pneumonia in 1966, not long after he slipped from Paudras's care).

When people realized how helpless Powell was, they told him (as Paudras says), "Just play the piano, Bud. We'll take care of the rest." That made him even more dependent, till eventually he gave up on all the ordinary tasks of living. He was easy to exploit. He worked for long periods at Birdland, a New York club whose owner was also his manager and for a while his court-appointed guardian, a situation ripe with conflict of interest.

By the time Paudras met him in Paris, Powell didn't even collect his own pay--employers turned it over to Altevia (Buttercup) Edwards, a sometime singer who for a while operated a Paris soul-food restaurant. Buttercup claimed to be his wife but had not actually married him. "This screaming harpy," as Paudras calls her, becomes the book's symbol of all the forces that damaged Powell's life. Paudras says Buttercup fed Powell tranquilizers so powerful that it was impossible to say whether mental confusion was part of his condition or a drug side-effect. Often his memory failed and he couldn't recognize his own playing on tape, even a tape made a few days earlier. Paudras came to believe that Powell dredged up his music from a secret world deep inside himself, a place he could visit only occasionally. He also decided Powell was psychic.

Eventually, Paudras came to see Powell in religious terms, as he saw jazz itself. "You don't just learn jazz," he insists. "You come to it as you come to religion." To Paudras, jazz was a universal faith and "Bud was one of the high priests." Paudras's sad, valuable book is an offering placed on an altar.

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