Six Degrees of Bud Powell

In a recent appearance on the NPR quiz show ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, the actor Kevin Bacon was asked how he felt about ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’, a game which was invented by college students in the 1990s inspired by Bacon’s seeming omnipresence in movies of that era.  Bacon told Peter Sagal, the host of ‘Wait, Wait’, that he was initially ‘horrified’ to learn of the game.  In its simplest form, the game allows one movie buff to challenge another to start with any combination of a film and an actor, move to another film which shares at least one actor with the first film, and continue the sequence until they find the shortest possible path to a film involving Bacon.  Bacon said of his initial reaction, ‘I really thought it was a joke at my expense. I mean, I thought they were saying, can you believe that this lightweight can be connected in six degrees to Laurence Olivier?… And so I kind of thought well, I’m going to kind of become a laughingstock. And then I went onto a television show, and I met these young guys, and they were real fans. It wasn’t something that they had devised to, you know, bring my career down… And so then I just kind of said, well, I guess I’ve got to embrace it.’

Although webpages like The Oracle of Bacon cloak the game in mock-seriousness, to anyone familiar with Hollywood films from the 1980’s to the present, it is a testament to how Bacon’s willingness to shift between lead and supporting roles has made him a truly influential artist.  As even Bacon’s Wikipedia page shows, his career and personal life has not been without ups and downs, including roles in forgettable comedy and horror films and some unfortunate involvement with Bernie Madoff, but the enduring popularity of the ‘Six Degrees’ game shows how the flexibility and adaptability of his acting, combined with plenty of genuine talent, have often helped him rise above adverse conditions.

Hearing Bacon’s interview on ‘Wait Wait’ made me realize that I am sometimes feel as though I am living out a similar game called ‘Six Degrees of Bud Powell’, in which I am frequently reminded of the influence of Bud Powell both on my own musical development and on the development of jazz in general.  Two of the most important items in my jazz record collection as a teenager were The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume Two and a compilation (which sadly seems to have gone out of print) called ‘The Best of Blue Note’, which included ‘Un Poco Loco’ from The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume One as well as a Miles Davis rendition of ‘Tempus Fugit’.  (Both were presents from my forward-looking brother.)  I went on to include ‘Un Poco Loco’ (both a transcription of the solo and a performance of the tune) in my final project at Hampshire College, and I included my arrangement of ‘Tempus Fugit’ (based on the Bud Powell version) as part of a classical recital focused on fugues that I gave during my student years at the University of Vermont.  I’ve also returned to both these tunes on gigs of my own, as well as in my work with student groups.  Both of these tunes, which are among the more advanced and challenging of Bud Powell’s compositions, are available in the Hal Leonard volume ‘The Bud Powell Collection’.  This book includes transcriptions of Powell’s solos on these tunes; both solos are whole worlds of melodic invention and variation unto themselves, and I hope to deal with them more in depth in another post.

In 2010 I played a concert with my trio called ‘Tempus Fugue-it: Celebrating Bud Powell’ which included, in addition to the tunes mentioned above, Powell’s classic tune ‘Celia’ (named after his daughter).   I also included two tunes by great jazz composers which pay tribute to Powell.  Chick Corea’s tune ‘Bud Powell’ has a number of connections with the phrasing and structure of ‘Celia’; the first eight measures of both tunes have similar phrase structure and a similar melodic arc, and both tunes have bridges that move to minor keys.   (The Corea tune also uses what sounds like a direct quote from Tadd Dameron’s ‘The Scene Is Clean’.) The concert also included Herbie Hancock’s tune ‘Still Time’ from the soundtrack to the film ‘Round Midnight’.  As Hancock explained on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the tune is based on the chord progression of Powell’s ballad ‘Time Waits’ and has a melody which contrapuntally complements the original melody.      (This same compositional technique – writing a countermelody which complements an existing tune but is not intended to be performed with it – seems also to have been used in at least two tunes attributed to Charlie Parker, ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Donna Lee’, both of which work well as countermelodies to the tunes they are based on, ‘How High The Moon’ and ‘Indiana’.) This, however, only explains the direct influence of Bud Powell on my life and work; more recently, his influence has also popped up in other more mysterious and surprising ways.

In 2011 I traveled to Florida to perform with Mike Gordon at the Allman Brothers’ Wanee Festival.  While I was there I got to hear the Tedeschi Trucks Band play the Billy Taylor civil rights anthem ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’.  This performance truly ‘took me to church’, and led me to investigate Dr. Taylor’s many recordings of the tune.  One of the most powerful versions I’ve found, which I worked on a transcription of with my students Jacob Ungerleider and Martin Chandler, was on a video that is apparently no longer available.  I have posted the audio of it here. While Nina Simone’s versions of the tune, particularly  a live Montreux version with an intro that showcases her stride playing, powerfully display the lyrics of ‘I Wish I Knew How’ and their poetic evocation of the hunger for justice and freedom, Taylor’s solos on his instrumental versions of the tune to make a powerful case for the relevance of bebop melodic concepts to the backbeat-based ‘soul jazz’ style in which the tune is cast.  In the context of the themes that the song’s title and lyrics address, this statement takes on political significance.  Taylor’s solos on his various versions, while they are all different, follow a similar evolution of ideas, which gives them something in common with Louis Armstrong’s Dippermouth Blues solo (discussed in the last post), a three-chorus sequence that Armstrong evolved throughout his career.  The general musical outline that the solos follow seem to me to illustrate a spiritual progression, moving through gospel and blues approaches (which, in the context of Taylor’s solo, means improvising within a more limited range of one or two scales, contrasting the constantly moving chord progression with a more static melodic approach) and ending up with the bebop concept of ‘making the changes’, in other words, improvising a melody based a the harmonic progression.  This might also be described in modern terms as ‘responding in real time to a series of continuously evolving changes’.

Through each of these solos we can hear Taylor moving from a blues approach to improvising, which in this context is a way of creating melody largely independent from and even resistant to harmonic change, to a bebop approach, where a more intense and energetic melodic line results from a being more aware of and responsive to the changes in the chord progression.  Dick Dallas’ lyrics to the tune move from describing the reality of oppression (‘I wish I could break all the chains binding me’) and the almost insurmountable challenge of communicating one’s perspective (‘I wish I could say all I’m longing to say…I wish you could know how it feels to be me…’) to a vision of a more just and honest world (‘I wish I could be like a bird in the sky…then I’d sing cause I know how it feels to be free’).  In a similar way, Taylor’s solos make a musical journey from the blues approach to improvisation, which seems to parallel the struggle described in the opening verses of the song, to the bebop approach, which Taylor seems to associate with the vision of freedom, as it always occupies the concluding section of the song where the more visionary verses are sung.  In the version I linked to above, the double-time chorus where he employs bop language directly references the altered rhythm changes tune ‘Bud’s Bubble’ (aka Crazeology).   There is a potent resonance in Taylor’s reference to Powell at this high point in his musical sermon; as Pullman’s biography abundantly documents, Powell struggled against many forms of oppression throughout his life, not only the racial discrimination that was so blatant in the mid-twentieth century, but also the lack of cultural and institutional understanding at that time for people with mental illnesses.   (Pullman documents that Powell lost a significant amount of his creativity to the extensive and brutal electroshock therapy which he was subjected to, but also benefited from the assistance of more independently minded psychiatrists who intervened on his behalf.)  Another direct quote of a Powell tune occurs in Horace Silver’s solo on ‘Silver’s Serenade’, where Silver first disguises and then reveals the theme from Powell’s ‘Dance Of The Infidels’.  (My transcription of this solo appears in an earlier post.)

Another performance which ‘took me to church’ was Bobby McFerrin’s performance at the 2013 Discover Jazz Festival, during which he was playing music from his recent CD ‘spirityouall’ (a creative transformation of the word ‘spiritual’).  McFerrin’s performance, including spellbinding renditions of ‘Glory’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’, was one of the quietest I have ever heard by a five piece, partly electric ensemble.  The quiet dynamic allowed McFerrin to take full advantage of his considerable gifts at listening to and responding to sounds of all kinds.  (At one point, in response to a fleeting bit of microphone feedback, McFerrin improvised a completely believeable snatch of operatic soprano melody – which, coming from the son of an opera singer, is simultaneously a joke and not a joke).  While looking through McFerrin’s discography, I realized he had a connection to Bud Powell early in his career: his first album includes an acapella vocal cover of the Powell tune ‘Hallucinations’, where McFerrin approximates the sound of Powell’s two hands through overdubbing his voice.

Most recently, my wife and I watched the animated film ‘Chico and Rita’ on the recommendation of a student.  Its plot combines a fictional story of  romance between a man and a woman in Havana and New York during the 1940s and the actual relationship that developed during that time period between Latin dance music and the bebop movement in jazz in both those locations.  In addition to including the Latin jazz standards such as ‘Tin Tin Deo’, the film also prominently features a rendition of  ‘Celia’ by the Cuban pianist Rolando Luna.

Powell’s signature tune ‘Bouncin’ With Bud’ (which, in a murky historical turn typical for bebop, is sometimes also titled ‘Bebop In Pastel’ and attributed to Sonny Stitt) has also received many different interpretations ranging from a more recent version by pianist Zaccai Curtis to a multi-generational version featuring Powell on piano with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during the era when the horn lineup included Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone.  (‘Celia’ and ‘Hallucinations’ are both available in the Hal Leonard volume ‘Bud Powell Classics’ as well as the somewhat-harder-to-find ‘Mostly Bud, Original Voicings’ published by Gerard and Sarzin; the latter book also includes versions of ‘Tempus Fugit’ and ‘Bouncin’ with Bud’.)

In Michelle Mercer’s biography of Shorter, she tells the story of how Shorter received an almost mystical visitation in his hotel from Powell the night of the concert.  After knocking on Shorter’s door and walking silently into his room, Powell said, ‘Play me something’, and Shorter responded with a solo version of ‘Dance of The Infidels’.  “After he played,” Mercer writes, “Bud thanked him, stood up, and walked to the door.  He turned around and stared.  ‘Are you all right?‘ Wayne asked.  ‘Uh-huh, it’s all right’, Bud mumbled in response.”  Mercer quotes Powell’s daughter Celia (the namesake of the song), who interprets her father’s visit to Shorter as stemming from Powell’s need to assure himself that everything was ‘all right’ for the future of music, and that he could depend on Shorter to carry on and develop the jazz tradition.

Shorter’s actual visitation from Powell, brought on by the power of Shorter’s playing on Powell’s tunes, reminds me a little of the recurring visitations that Powell’s musical themes make on my musical consciousness.  Each time I recognize a Bud Powell theme in a performance, or even better, hear the unmistakeable sound of the master himself, it re-connects me to one of my strongest musical inspirations, and refreshes my energy for studying, practicing and performing music.  I can’t count the number of times that unmistakeable sound of Bud Powell on the radio has drawn and held my attention, in the house, the car, or once in a doctor’s office (where Bud’s version of There Will Never Be Another You kept me from leaving after my appointment one day.)  (I have to credit the internet station Calm Radio Jazz Piano, which features Bud frequently, for providing me with some of these epiphanies.)  I think that, just as Kevin Bacon’s adaptability has been a key factor in making him influential in the film world, the adaptability that Bud Powell displayed throughout his career, from his early recordings with Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, to his seminal trio work, to his late-career recordings with Dexter Gordon, Mingus and the Jazz Messengers, is closely related to what has made his ideas indestructible and a vital part of the musical language.  Have you ever noticed a musical theme, from a particular piece or player or composer, that keeps recurring over any period of time, maybe even just a week or a day, or perhaps (as in my case) most of your lifetime?  If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

While I encourage comments of any kind, I encourage readers to choose one of the Bud Powell compositions I refer to in the entry (‘Celia’, ‘Hallucinations’, ‘Un Poco Loco’, Bouncin’ With Bud’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ – sometimes spelled ‘Tempus Fugue-It’) and write a response contrasting Powell’s original recording of the tune with a more recent interpretation of the tune.  There are recordings of ‘Celia’ by both Chick Corea and Bruce Hornsby among many others; ‘Hallucinations’ by both Chick and Bobby McFerrin, ‘Un Poco Loco’ by both Hornsby and Tito Puente, and ‘Bouncin’ with Bud’ by both Chick and Zaccai Curtis.  Searching the titles on iTunes will lead you to many other versions.  Consider some of the following questions in your contrasting of the two versions:

 – Does the newer version add any elements that were not present in the original, such as different instrumentation or new sections of the arrangement?

– Does the head statement in the newer version closely follow Powell’s original melody, or is there some reinterpretation?  If so, how is the melody reinterpreted?

– Does the newer version use the same chord changes the original, or is there some reharmonization, either in the head statement or the solo?

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8 Responses to Six Degrees of Bud Powell

  1. tgcleary says:

    Well said, Jonah – the gospel tradition is certainly a big influence on Stevie Wonder’s music. I have also heard that he likes warming up at soundchecks with ‘Giant Steps’ – and sure enough, there is a YouTube video of him taking a couple choruses on it with Stanley Clarke. The midsection of ‘For Once In My Life’ that leads into the harmonica solo also basically moves through the first three changes of Giant Steps (although it expands the second change into a ii-V), which makes me wonder if his affinity for the tune goes back earlier in his career. While searching on ‘Giant Steps’ I also came across this great version of the tune by Betty Carter, which includes some serious scat singing. The full concert from 1993, which is amazing, can also be seen. This band (Carter with the power trio of Geri Allen, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette) certainly had a big influence on me – I still play their arrangement of ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ from time to time.

  2. Jonah Ullman says:

    The influence of gospel music has, time and time again, caught my attention in my daily listening. My parents brought me up on all different kinds of music, but my dad has always had a special place in his heart for gospel and bossa nova (both of which I inherited a love for). Whenever I hear a hint of the gospel tradition (or more than a hint, such as in the Nina Simone recording you mentioned), it immediately grabs my attention. For example, This Stevie Wonder tune which everyone knows well reminds me strongly of gospel music with its turnaround and call-and-response with the chorus.

  3. Jack Hanson says:

    Really enjoyed the Curtis Brothers Quartet version of Bouncin’ with Bud: They superimposed the melody over an afro-latin beat. I had trouble even counting along. At times I could count in 4 but other times I couldn’t (such as the ending figure on the head in before the piano solo). The melodies and harmonies were very latin sounding to go with the latin rhythms. This tune was totally different then the straight ahead swing version done by Bud and co. (young Sonny Rollins with a killer solo). The Curtis Brothers version was also twice as long, with much longer solos. The Bud intro was abandoned for a rhythmic bass and drums (and low piano notes) opening that is very difficult to count.

    I’m not sure if the Curtis Brothers version would be considered jazz. If it is, then the word certainly is a very broad one that encompasses many different sub-genres. Either way, I really like how drastically they altered the tune in this newer version.

  4. Martin Chandler says:

    I listened to a recording of Celia in C performed by Chick Corea. It sounded like he decorated the bridge with different chords than those of the standard rhythm changes. Bud definitely jumps into the double-time feel for his solo, whereas Chick sticks with the swinging-eighth-note feel. Bud’s version had a drummer, and Chick performed it as a solo piano piece. Both were at about the same tempo. Both are great to listen to.

  5. Alec Julien says:

    Powell number — love the idea! First there needs to be a IJDB — internet jazz database. Wonder if someone has started cataloguing who plays on what album…

    I can’t remember who I found with that high a Bacon number. It was some middle eastern actor with a bit part in an indie afterschool special, or something like that.

  6. tgcleary says:

    Nice, Alec! Maybe you could help me figure out what a ‘Powell number’ might be (i.e. a way of quantifying a given player’s connection to Bud Powell, not just a Bud Powell tune)…who did you find with a Bacon number of 7 or less, by the way?

  7. Alec Julien says:

    My dad used to play Bud Powell for me when I was a kid, and I hated it. It took me another 20 years to realize what a stupid kid I was.

    Oh, and, ahem, check out The Oracle of Bacon hall of fame, April, 1998.

  8. Amber deLaurentis says:

    Great read, Tom. One of the first things I ever heard you play was Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” at Hampshire College in the early 90s. I remember thinking how much I loved the tune, but more than that, who is that incredible pianist playing it! Thanks for reminding us of how present Bud Powell’s music is. Now, how about the Bacon Brothers doing a rendition of “Tempus Fugit?” That would be something.

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