A Portrait of Bud Powell

Dance of the Infidels:
A Portrait of Bud Powell

By Francis Paudras, Translated from the French by Rubye Monet
DaCapo, 355 pages (paper), $18.95

by Don Rose

copyright © 1999 Don Rose

For some strange reason it took a dozen years to bring out an American edition of this well-known biographical memoir of pianist Bud Powell, one of the most extraordinary and influential improvisers in the history of jazz. It is the basis of the film Round Midnight, which conflated the characters of Powell and Lester Young into an aging tenor man portrayed by Dexter Gordon. The character is befriended by a young French fan who becomes a virtual guardian and protector for the last sad years of the musician's life.

Paudras, a commercial artist and amateur pianist, indeed became that friend and protector for Powell, whose brilliance was frequently blotted out by the misery of a life damaged by mental and physical illnesses, drugs, alcohol and abusive relationships.

Powell's life would provide a year's worth of movies of the week: by age 21 he is recognized as both a virtuoso and major musical innovator; with his friend and mentor Thelonius Monk, he defines the bebop era on his instrument, becoming the peer of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. But, like Monk, he is never quite right in the head -- apparently the result of a difficult relationship with his father -- and, like Parker, he abuses drugs and drink.

He was beaten severely by police as a young man, which may be the cause of the epilepsy he suffered; he was confined to mental institutions several times and early on subjected to appalling electroshock therapies that apparently left him without sexual function. Add to which he is tubercular. Like many who have had unfortunate familial relationships, in his later years he picks up with a domineering woman -- ironically known as Buttercup -- who treats him abysmally and keeps him overdosed on a dangerous, high-potency tranquilizer intended to merely stabilize him.

His entire professional life was a sinister roller-coaster ride, going from stratospheric highs to nonfunctional lows until his death at 42. Born in 1924, his best remembered recordings and performances took place between 1946 and 1956, when he first went to Paris and met Paudras. But though his many problems conspired to cripple his technique, creativity or both, he was always capable of exceptional comebacks as later recordings and reports of his performances demonstrate.

Paudras -- who committed suicide late last year -- was the ultimate idolator. Powell and his music were a fanatic obsession. His relationship with Powell, though nonsexual, is a passionate love story -- at least on Paudras' part. Long, rapturous passages talk about how Bud's music controls Paudras' own life. He watches over Powell when the musician moves to Paris for a long stay in 1959, eventually rescuing him from the control of Buttercup. Paudras and his wife actually take a larger apartment they can ill afford, just to let Powell move in with them.

The book, whose title comes from one of Powell's greatest records, goes on and on with anecdotes -- some insightful, but many of them trivial and repetitive to the point of boring. We see Bud's odd, often child-like behavior everywhere in Paris, whether playing in clubs, visiting people or on the streets -- more than once he was reduced to cadging change to buy a drink. Almost every episode -- each also captioned by a record title -- has a sad twinge. Some are just plain wierd, as when Paudras brings him to visit his very staid parents and Bud eats an entire pate intended as a dinner appetizer.

In 1964 he accompanies Bud back to the States for a triumphal return gig at Birdland -- leaving the pregnant Nicole Paudras behind in Paris. It is, however, a financial scuffle and Bud never settles down -- he's disappearing or getting drunk or into other trouble and finally loses the job. The famed "jazz baroness," Nica Koenigswarter, takes them both in. Paudras must return to Paris after the birth of his child, hoping to take Bud with him, but the pianist has rediscovered his first "wife" and the daughter, Celia, he fathered years ago. He stays, grows ill and dies in 1966.

The story of Paudras' devotion to Powell is little short of astonishing. There is no doubt that his ministrations for five years helped keep Bud alive and out of jails and institutions. He also documented a lot of Bud's music during those years and selflessly turned the material over to Celia.

There is a wealth of anecdotal material here, some of it self aggrandizing, involving dozens of well known jazz personalities from Monk to -- surprisingly -- Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. But ultimately the book is flawed seriously by Paudras' inability to be anything but an apologist and worshipper. Powell gave us some of the most divine music of the century -- but he had many bad periods and Paudras does not seem to know the difference, or cannot accept it. In fact, there is barely any genuine musical discussion -- only emotional responses and the use of superlatives that finally lose their impact.

Worse in many ways is his constant denial of Powell's mental illness -- granted that many of the root issues were physiological. To Paudras, Bud was never catatonic, but "in a state of grace" -- perhaps an analog to Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin in "The Idiot," who apparently was epileptic as well. There are dozens of photos in the book, mostly routine snapshots, but one picture alone is worth the price of admission: Bud is looking skyward from the bottom of the page, his eyes rolled upward in a near beatific visage, while high above him is a flock of birds in flight. Prince Myshkin, indeed.

Perhaps it would take a Dostoyevsky to tell the whole story of Bud Powell and his music. There is still one to be written -- and this book must be considered a valuable source to be dissected and utilized. But it's too imbalanced and awkwardly written to serve as the real thing. In any event, DaCapo -- which is mainly known for its wonderful jazz reprint program -- is to be commended for finally making it available after all this time.

C o m m e n t s

Bud Powell By Francois 1 of 1
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August 12, 01

Man- whoever reviewed the book missed the love. It was never meant to be a bio. This book is one of the greatest on jazz from an insider- i read it over and over again.....

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