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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: Bud Powell : A Jazz Life and Genius Unprecedented

November 7, 2013

Program Locations:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium
General Research Division

Peter Pullman presents an overview of the life and music of pianist Earl Rudolph "Bud" Powell (1924-66), one of the architects of modern jazz. 

Pullman will highlight Powell’s Harlem origins, and underscore the emphasis that his father put on his learning the classical repertoire. This led to their eventual break, as the prodigy gave up the pursuit of a classical career (in his late teens) once he met a second 'father' – Thelonious Monk, the leader of all of the modernist experimentation in Harlem. 

Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Powell all came to play in midtown-Manhattan nightclubs in 1945, when the Street, as 52d Street was known, was opening to African-American performers.  From then through the early Fifties, Powell found great success both in the clubs and in the recording studios. But Pullman will explore the simultaneous struggles that befell Powell, who showed signs early on of mental frailty: his repeated, involuntary institutionalizations. These were the outgrowth of his playing music, fully associated with the African-American avant garde, that was perceived to be a social threat as well as to be a critique of danceband, or swing, music. Pullman’s narrative refers repeatedly to the social milieu in which Powell and the other musical pioneers forced their way – not only in New York but in whatever US cities they got the chance to promote their ideas. Powell’s story then moves to Europe, where his warm reception provided him with a five-year-long artistic twilight, one in which he was seen as an elder statesman of modernism and made new friends. 

Pullman’s passion for jazz dates to his college years. In his twenties, he left New York to work in international civil service – first in Swaziland, in rural/community development and, then, in Sudan, in refugee assistance. He also worked for a time at United Nations Development Program, at UN headquarters in New York City.  In the Eighties, when not overseas, he was a correspondent for The Wire (UK); he also wrote features for Village Voice. His involvement with the music business followed, in the Nineties, when he was part of a small creative team at Verve Records that produced, for issue on CD, that label's classic LP releases.  Among the more ambitious projects was a five-CD set of Bud Powell's music, for which he wrote and edited a 150-page booklet.  For it, he conducted interviews with those who had played alongside Powell and those who had derived their inspiration from a distance. Pullman’s work was cited by NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), in the form of a Grammy nomination.  Later this research expanded into the Powell biography, comprising more than three hundred formal interviews and five hundred informal ones. 

“As time has passed, my sense has grown more certain, that Bud Powell was among a select group and at the forefront of a unique artistic movement—and that nothing like him or it will ever be seen again. It has been my greatest honor to learn what I could of his life and his art, and to write his biography.” – Peter Pullman