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A Multifaceted Musical PersonalityCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Powell, MelMel Powell made his initial reputation as a jazz pianist and arranger, notably with the Benny Goodman band, but spent much of his life teaching classical composition and composing his own work in serial forms.
Powell was born Melvin Epstein to Russian Jewish parents in a house overlooking Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a proximity which fed his early love of baseball. He showed an equally strong interest in music, however, and a precocious talent for the piano. A hand injury while playing baseball eventually forced him to choose, and music won out.
His older brother introduced him to jazz in the mid-30s, and took him to his first jazz concert, featuring the Benny Goodman Band at the Paramount Theatre on Broadway, in 1936. He told The New Yorker in 1987 that "I had never heard anything as ecstatic as this music," and the experience began a gradual drift into jazz which took him through various local bands, and out of college without graduating.
His local reputation grew, and he worked with musicians like Bobby Hackett, Zutty Singleton and Muggsy Spanier in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and wrote arrangements for Earl Hines, one his first heroes at the piano. He changed his name to Mel Powell shortly before joining the Benny Goodman Band in 1941, and spent two years playing and arranging for the clarinetist. His best known piece from this period was his own composition The Earl, dedicated to Hines and recorded without a drummer in 1941.
Following a brief spell in the CBS Orchestra under the direction of Raymond Scott, Powell was inducted into the armed forces in 1942, and became a member of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band. But for Miller's own nervousness over flying, Powell's career could have ended prematurely at that point -- the pianist was one of the musicians supposed to accompany their leader on his ill-fated final flight, but Miller suggested that the small plane would be safer if it carried only him and the pilot, and left the others to catch a subsequent flight.
While stationed in Paris, he recorded with Django Reinhardt in the Jazz Club American Hot Band, and returned to work with Goodman in New York after his discharge. He moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he continued to play jazz for a time, dabbled briefly and unsatisfyingly in film music, and met and married the actress Martha Scott.
In 1949, he decided on a radical change of direction, setting aside jazz and enrolling as a pupil of the composer and teacher Paul Hindemith at Yale University. Hindemith's rigorous teachings set him on a very different course, exploring what he preferred to call nontonal rather than atonal composition methods. In 1987, he told Whitney Balliett, the jazz critic of The New Yorker, what lay behind his decision.
"I have decided that when I retire I will think through my decision to leave jazz -- with the help of Freud and Jung. At the moment, I suspect it was this: I had done what I felt I had to do in jazz. I had decided it did not hold the deepest interest for me musically. And I had decided that it was a young man's music, even a black music. Also, the endless repetition of material in the Goodman band -- playing the same tunes day after day and night after night -- got to me. That repetition tended to kill spontaneity, which is the heart of jazz and which can give a lifetime's nourishment."
Powell's decision was not quite final. He played and recorded again in the mid-50s, both with Goodman and as a leader in his own right, and thirty years later made an unexpected return when he accepted an offer to play an engagement on the cruise ship Norway in 1986, alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Dick Hyman, and several other jazz notables.
His principal creative energies were directed into teaching, initially at Yale and, from 1970, at the California Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, and to classical composition, where he is considered to be a minor but not insignificant member of the school of American serialism which also includes some of Copland's later work, and the music of composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt.
The contrast between his exhuberant, sophisticated development of traditional jazz and the dry austerity of his nontonal compositions and his experiments with electronic music seemed irreconcilable to many, but served to illustrate his multi-faceted, almost quixotic musical personality.