The Book Cooks
Back in the late-1950s, when I was a young jazz enthusiast, Bud was the pianist who made the biggest impact on me. His reputation among modern jazz cognoscenti was massive and I listened to every recording I could get hold of. I also avidly read about him and was deeply moved by the stories of his tragic life. He seemed to my young mind to be the archetypal tortured genius. Such artists have always fascinated me, probably to my disadvantage at times. I marvelled at his medium and up-tempo playing, but what really grabbed me was his interpretation of ballads. They seemed to be filled with enormous depth and sadness and he extracted a unique timbre from the keyboard when he played them. It was not so much the chord progressions and inversions he used, but rather the strange haunting quality with which he invested them. This effect is to do with his very personal handling of dynamics and the subtle placing of the chords in time. A wonderful example is the first few bars of ‘Embraceable You’. The first chords are played in a simple quarter note rhythm in 4/4 time, but with miniscule variations in tempo, along with a subtle dynamic shading, that is quite unique to Powell. The effect is extraordinary in its emotional impact.
Another thing that was a revelation to me was how on ballads he would often play almost the same solo every time. It’s sometimes said that the secret of great improvisation is never to repeat yourself, but this misses the point. Powell arrived at his final semi-static version of ‘Embraceable You’, for example, through a process of improvisation combined with an acute, almost classical awareness of formal structure. The result is not just deeply emotional and personal, but also a study in formal perfection. Masterpieces like this take on a life of their own, in the same way as, for example, Louis Armstrong’s great ‘West End Blues’. Charlie Parker also used his own familiar phrases over and over again, as do most improvisers. These characteristic phrases are in a sense like words from an artist’s personal language, a language from which a multitude of stories may be told. It’s not so much the ‘licks’ you use but the story you tell with them. What separates the greats from lesser players is the way they use their own ‘dictionary’ of ‘words’ to tell beautiful and personal stories. This to me is the essence of good style. Think of it – if you never repeat yourself, no one will ever be sure who you are. We only need to hear a bar of Charlie Parker to know we are listening to Bird. We recognise great musicians, from Bach to Coltrane and beyond, by their unique musical and emotional language.
We all hear music through the prism of our own emotions. I hear in Powell’s music a strangely disturbing but beautiful world, tinged with elements of his courageous struggle against insanity. Others may feel differently but, having played with him and been in his company, I don’t think this is too romantic a view. Before moving to Paris, Bud recorded an extraordinary piece called ‘Glass Enclosure’. The title alone and the strange unsettling nature of the composition seemed to capture the nightmarish atmosphere of the asylum. Only Bud knew the real meaning behind that piece, but it was a strangely evocative title to say the least, especially considering it was recorded not long after one of his long confinements in an asylum. On a lighter note is this story about one of those periods in hospital. A musician friend who visited him described how Bud had drawn a whole piano keyboard on the wall of his hospital room. He suddenly jumped up, placed his hands purposefully on the virtual keyboard, as if playing a new chord, and said to his visitor, ‘What do you think of this?’ He expected the guy to see his fingers on the keys and hear the chord. Actually not so crazy, when you think about it, but the friend thought Bud was really spaced out.
Bud reminded me in some ways of one of my favourite painters, Vincent Van Gogh. He must have drawn that keyboard on the wall for the same reason that Vincent needed his paints in the asylum at Saint Rémy: to hold onto what little sanity he had in that awful place, by working and practising his art, however he could. Occasionally, Bud was allowed to play the piano while he was hospitalised, but only once a week. However, a unique event took place one Christmas at the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, when Bud was undergoing treatment there. Lester Young and blues singer Sonny Terry were also patients at the time. The doctors asked if there were any musicians in the hospital so Prez, Sonny and Bud volunteered their services and played at a Christmas concert. A recording of that odd trio would be something to hear!
I first heard Bud play live in 1961, at the Essen Jazz Festival, where I was playing with Dankworth’s band. Essen’s famous Grugahalle was filled to its huge eight thousand seat capacity. Bud’s trio had Kenny Clarke on drums and Pierre Michelot on bass. I have never seen such a collection of legendary musicians together at one time. The Buck Clayton band was there, with Emmett Berry (trumpet), Vic Dickinson (trombone), Gene Ramey (bass), Buddy Tate (tenor) and Earle Warren, who borrowed my alto because his got lost in transit. Buck’s band was virtually the nucleus of the old Basie band from the forties, but without Lester Young. Other musicians included Jackie McLean, and two guys we had never heard of before: Jimmy Witherspoon, whose fabulous blues singing was one of the highlights of the festival, and a young Roland Kirk. Roland practiced his horns all day long, playing into the walls of the dressing room and the corridors, wearing sunglasses held together with sticky tape and bits of cork. We didn’t even realise he was blind as it was by no means obvious. We just thought he was a bit crazy and wore the weird shades for effect.
I remember Buck’s band going into a dressing room several times to rehearse. There wasn’t a sheet of music anywhere in sight. Just as with Basie’s band in the early days, they played all head arrangements. It’s said that Basie had over three hundred tunes in the book when Prez was in the band but they were all head arrangements; even the harmony parts were worked out by ear and committed to memory. That night, I stepped into the bus going back to the hotel after the concert and it was like a who’s who of jazz. In one row of seats alone I could see Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell with his wife, Buttercup – totally awe-inspiring for a nervous young kid from Surrey.
Back at the hotel, while I was chatting excitedly to some of the guys from Dankworth’s band, Bud and Buttercup entered the hotel and Bud walked very slowly through the lobby and straight into the lift. He stared vacantly ahead of him as if in a deep trance. So slow was his solitary walk that Buttercup had time to collect the room key, put in a wake-up call and still arrive at the elevator, just as Bud reached it. We got in to go to our rooms too, and Bud stood motionless as the lift went up, staring straight ahead until he was led out and into his room. Could this be the same man who earlier had played with such sublime brilliance? When he wasn’t playing, he seemed in a strange world of his own; even relaxing in the dressing room he seemed to be somewhere else. At the end of his set the audience was screaming for more, but he just stood in the wings looking dazed. Kenny Clarke had to lead him back onstage to play his encore, holding his hand like a little lost child. He played at his best all night but, every time the audience applauded, he looked stunned and stared at them with a lost look, rising from the piano trying to smile and bow to the sea of faces. It was as if he didn’t even realise they were there until their applause disturbed his private world. It was a very moving experience and I really felt I was witnessing a genius at work, but a genius who lived in a nightmare world of sadness and insanity.
Witherspoon was in total awe of Bud. Jimmy was a big, tall, emotional, larger-than-life guy. The backstage area was full of musicians, stagehands and people who had blagged their way in. When Bud came offstage, ’Spoon tried to shake him by the hand and congratulate him. Bud just gave him a withering look, released his hand from Jimmy’s powerful grip and walked off, laughing. But it was the most chilling laugh I’ve ever heard, starting softly, then rising to a loud insane guffaw, which echoed around the corridors leading to the dressing rooms. Like something from a horror movie, the sound seemed to reverberate around the whole building for ages. Witherspoon stood staring after him and then at us, speechless and shocked, with tears in his eyes and a look of horror, pity and profound sadness on his expressive face. There was a feeling of suspended animation that seemed to stop everyone in their tracks. It was a frightening experience, I can tell you. I’ve heard similar stories of Bud’s reactions when people tried to congratulate him after a set. He would just stare at them, laughing as if they were mad. No wonder I was scared shitless when I eventually played with him.
When I saw Bud at the Blue Note in Paris a year later in 1962, I understood for the first time how totally insecure the jazz world was, even for our heroes from America. Bud was not playing with Kenny Clarke or even bassist Pierre Michelot. Instead, he was working with two run-of-the-mill French musicians who seemed to treat him with little respect. To my disgust, the drummer even made fun of Bud’s odd demeanour, sticking one of his sticks under Powell’s nose like it was a moustache, every time he adopted his characteristic head back posture while waiting to play. At first, Bud seemed to take no notice but, when the same thing happened at the beginning of the second set, he suddenly snapped and told the drummer to, ‘Cut it out!’ The most shocking thing, though, was that there were only between six and ten people in the club. How could this be? This was the famous Blue Note and this was the man who had received a standing ovation from eight thousand in Essen. Probably he got a good fee for the Essen concert, but I’ll bet most of it went to pay off his medical debts from America. In Paris, he lived in Lester Young’s old rooms in the Hotel La Louisiane, a terrible shit-hole of a place featured in the film Round Midnight. American musicians lived there only because it was very cheap and you could do your own cooking to save money.
My meeting with Bud came about through a change in my personal life. In 1961, I was, I’m ashamed to say, still a virgin at twenty-one. Suffering from bad acne probably didn’t help. However, that all changed when I met Vicky, an attractive woman with a warm, caring personality. Slightly older than me, she was a fan and before long we became very close. She soon showed me the ropes in bed and was a tower of strength in other ways too. My acne improved no end! She gave me much more confidence in myself and, although we eventually went our separate ways, we still remain friends. She worked in the record business, knew Bud Powell and had been at some of his recording sessions in Paris. Vicky wanted to sing and became friends with Buttercup, who was herself a part-time vocalist. One day she told me all this and added, ‘You must come over to Paris for a few days, meet Buttercup and sit in with Bud.’ I was still nervous of travelling, especially abroad, so the idea of meeting Bud in Paris was thrilling but also daunting. But Vicky persuaded me Bud wouldn’t bite and fixed the travel arrangements. It turned out to be a long weekend of firsts. My first night flight; my first flight in a jet too – one of Air France’s new Caravelles. Travelling by jet was new in those days so, with my love of aircraft, this was bliss and after only forty-five minutes I was on the tarmac at Orly airport. By contrast, it took two and a half hours to fly back in a Lockheed Super Constellation. Only a few years before, these piston engine aircraft had been the pride of the Atlantic route.
When we had settled in our hotel, Vicky called Buttercup and arrangements were made to meet. The first night we went to the Blue Note, on the Rue d’Artois just off the Champs Élysées, and listened to a couple of Bud’s sets. Next day, we went to the Hotel La Louisiane at around midday to be met by Buttercup. She was an over-large, friendly lady and full of life, but I was mortified to see the run-down suite of rooms that was their home after Lester Young left. There was a tatty bed in a kind of hallway. In the bed, fast asleep, was Bud’s six-year-old son, snuggled up to a young black girl who was only about fourteen herself and apparently took care of the child. She may have been Bud’s daughter but I don’t remember her being introduced as such. After coffee and a chat, Buttercup took us in to see Bud, warning us he might not be too talkative, but not to worry. His bedroom was small, with bare floorboards and a small double bed. The only other furniture was an old chair and a plywood tea chest by the bed. A grubby tin lid served as an astray.
Bud was sitting up in bed wearing an old tee shirt and smoking a cigarette. He stared straight ahead at the wall and seemed unaware of our presence. Any kind of introduction was out of the question, so Buttercup did all the talking, She continually slapped Bud on the back as she punctuated her chatter with asides like, ‘Didn’t they, Bud, ha ha?’ or, ‘Ha ha, wasn’t it, Bud?’ Bud remained silent, staring into space, except for the odd disdainful grunt when she slapped his back and tried to get him involved in her chatty monologue.
After about twenty minutes we went back to the kitchen, leaving him to his lonely world. Buttercup’s treatment of Bud has become a contentious issue but I saw nothing to make me doubt her caring nature towards him. We talked about him and the night to come, when I was supposed to sit in with him. She told us he would be fine at the Blue Note, explaining he had a daily routine that went like this: he would wake up late-morning and act quite normally, playing with his young son for a couple of hours; then he would drift into a semi-catatonic state for a while, going back to bed only to rise relatively normal again at about 9 p.m. He would travel by cab to the gig, which didn’t start till about 10.30 p.m. When he went to work he was usually fine and would even hang out with his musicians after the gig, at a local tabac. He had to be constantly watched, though, and the musicians had strict instructions not to let him have alcohol. Buttercup was feeding him large amounts of Largactil, the drug used for keeping violent prisoners and lunatics quiet and noted for its terrible side effects.
Bud had been abused terribly in asylums, where they had forced him to have several courses of damaging electro-shock therapy. His schizophrenia and manic depression had been ‘treated’ with large amounts of Thorazine, a drug considered by many to be virtually a chemical lobotomy. Thorazine and Largactil have debilitating side effects and a lot of his strange behaviour could no doubt be attributed to these, combined with indiscriminating use of shock therapy. It’s sad to think that, if he was alive today, his condition could probably be treated far more successfully, with modern medicines and techniques.
I had gained in confidence after working at Ronnie Scott’s and then with Dankworth, but the thought of playing with Bud Powell was something else again. When Vicky and I arrived at the Blue Note that evening, Buttercup was not there; she rarely came to the club. I was introduced to Ben Benjamin, the large and intimidating ex-pat American proprietor. On hearing I might sit in with Bud he said, ‘OK, if Bud agrees.’ He then gave me a warning, ‘Listen, Pete. Whatever you do, don’t buy Bud a drink and make sure he doesn’t steal yours.’ Bud would steal people’s drinks from right under their noses unless he was watched all the time. He was a Jekyll and Hyde and only needed one small drink to turn into a crazy and often angry drunk (a typical side effect of Largactil when mixed with alcohol). Finally, I was officially introduced to Bud. He was, as Buttercup had assured us, quite aware of his surroundings now but, after a brief attempt at a handshake, he sat down right opposite me and just stared fixedly straight into my eyes, with a disconcerting Buddha-like smile. I attempted to make embarrassed conversation but he just kept staring. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he gave my alto case a long quizzical look and said, ‘Is that your horn, Pete? Are you going to play?’ At which, he got up and motioned me onto the bandstand.
I leave it to your imagination how I was feeling by this stage. I took my position and, conquering my fear, turned to face Bud. He was smiling at me from behind the piano and said in a friendly tone, ‘What do you want to play, Pete?’ ‘Ornithology’? I ventured. He just kept smiling and repeated, ‘What do you want to play, Pete?’ This really threw me, but I suggested another tune and got the same response again. He showed no sign of irritation and kept smiling through the whole weird ceremony. After about three attempts to come up with something to play, he suddenly said in a decisive tone, ‘Scrapple from the Apple’, and started playing the tune, with no count in or introduction. I turned to face the front and joined in after a couple of bars. Musically it was a revelation. I had played that tune a thousand times before, but had never heard it sound the way he played it. Every phrase was filled with carefully-crafted subtleties and it was as if there were twice the normal amount of time between each note. The statement of the theme was a music lesson in itself but, when he started to comp behind my solo, it was like magic. I seemed to have so much time to think. It was like lying in a beautiful king-sized bed after struggling in a sleeping bag. Bud seemed to know more about what I was going to play than I did. He filled in all my phrase breaks, leading me into what appeared to be the only correct thing to play next. It was an extraordinary experience and my first exposure to that incredibly relaxed feel that seemed, in those days, an exclusive province of the American giants.
I was in a state of bliss, but tinged with abject terror. What would Bud do, now he had heard me play? I half-expected him to shout abuse at me, slam down the piano lid and storm off, or worse. After all, I knew the story about him doing something similar, to Bird of all people, in Birdland, saying, ‘You ain’t playing shit no more, Bird!’ Well, I finished my solo, the small audience applauded and Bud went into his solo. When I got courage enough to turn round he was totally engrossed in his own playing, holding his head back and quietly ‘singing’ what sounded like drum fills, to accompany himself. It always looked as if his hands operated the keys by themselves, while his head alone was creating the music and even the backing to his own solo. His head and body were almost motionless when he played. There was absolutely no wasted movement. This was a lesson I also learnt from Lucky Thompson later. Most of the musicians from that generation knew the importance of using minimum physical effort with maximum concentration when they played. The tune finished and the first hurdle was over but what next? ‘What next’, turned out to be more of the, ‘What d’ya wanna play, Pete?’ routine. After the same two or three attempts at finding a tune we carried on, and so it continued, until the end of the set. I was in far too much of a daze to remember what else we played that night, but I think ‘Confirmation’ may have been in there somewhere. After the last number, Bud played two superfast choruses of the classic bebop signature tune ‘52nd Street Theme’ and then stood up. I turned to face him and to my great relief he was grinning broadly and, without saying a word, held out his hand to shake mine, then left the stage. It seemed I had passed the audition.
During the interval Bud came up to me at the bar and said with a grin, ‘Hey Pete, you really like Charlie Parker?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, I love Bird,’ But I wasn’t sure if this was some kind of compliment or whether he was really telling me it was about time I started playing my own way. Maybe it was a bit of both. I discovered later that he talked for quite a while about the spottyfaced twenty-one-year-old from England who sounded like Bird. I was told Bud seemed to play better when I got on the stand. If that was true, I’m sure it was only because he needed another musician up there to relieve the boredom of playing night after night to an empty house with his mediocre trio companions.
Bud asked me back the next night to play but, when I did, I ran into opposition from Ben Benjamin. As I walked into the club he came up and said, ‘Look, Pete, you play good, but people come here to listen to Bud. So just play a couple of tunes tonight and then let Bud play on his own with the trio.’ I didn’t want to cause trouble so I politely agreed. The thought also passed my mind that maybe Bud had something to do with Ben’s remarks. I wasn’t sure I could face another night of it anyway. After all, I had already achieved one of my life ambitions the night before and didn’t want anything to spoil it. I tried to tell Bud, but he acted like he hadn’t heard me, and asked me up to play again for the first set. We went through the same ‘What d’ya wanna play, Pete?’ routine again. I had gotten used to it by now, but this time it changed slightly. Vicky must have been talking to Bud because, when it came to the second tune, he said, ‘Pete, “Loverman”, for your wife.’ For some silly reason I said ‘She’s not my wife, Bud. She’s my girlfriend.’ Bud, having none of this, repeated in more emphatic tones, ‘“Loverman”, for your wife.’ Not wanting to argue the point, I left it at that and we played the ballad. I had first learnt ‘Loverman’ from Parker’s recording on which he played it in the unusual key of D-flat, rather than the regular F. To ask Bud what key he wanted to play it in would have probably led nowhere fast, so I just waited for his intro and sure enough, he played it in D-flat.
‘Loverman’ was the second tune of the set so, not wishing to blot my copybook with the boss of the Blue Note, I reminded Bud of Benjamin’s orders and tried to excuse myself. His answer was silence, followed by another, ‘What d’ya wanna play, Pete?’ So I gave in and we played another tune. There then ensued a bizarre battle of wills between Bud and Benjamin, with me in the middle. Ben started, by yelling from the bar: ‘That’s enough, Pete. I told you to get off after two tunes!’ Bud came back with yet another, rather stubborn, ‘What d’ya wanna play, Pete?’ He repeated it again, directed as much at Ben as at me. Very uneasy, not knowing what to do, I tried to make my apologies to Bud and left the stage, frightened and pissed off with Ben Benjamin, but not keen to argue with the boss.
The rest of the night was a letdown. Bud carried on with the trio but when he came off, after the second and third sets, he totally ignored me. I was despondent and figured I had let him down by not standing up to Ben’s unreasonable demands. However, at the end of the night, he went over to the bar to get his overcoat, put his famous old black beret firmly on his head and started to leave the club. As he passed, he gave me a big smile and said, ‘Goodnight, Pete.’ You can imagine my relief. Vicky and I walked off into the Parisian night, happy as pigs in shit. I got to see the Eiffel Tower at four in the morning, but my most lasting impression of my first visit to Paris were the words, ‘What d’ya wanna play, Pete?’ A pretty innocuous question really, but one that stirs so many memories and emotions for me to this day.
© Peter King 2011