Emulate, Assimilate, Innovate, Part 2: Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly

Trumpeter, composer and educator Clark Terry, who I got to play with briefly in the early 2000s when he visited UVM, often used the phrase ’emulate, assimilate, innovate’ to describe the process by which improvisers develop their melodic language.  In this series of blog posts, I will be presenting some theories about how great improvisers from jazz history imitated and assimilated specific ideas of earlier players and often found ways to add their own innovations.  In his book Elements of the Jazz Language, Jerry Coker titles two licks that show up in many mid-twentieth-century solos by jazz players the Cry Me A River‘ lick (after the Arthur Hamilton song) and the Gone But Not Forgotten‘ lick (after the Bob Haggart/Jack Lawrence song).  (The link to ‘Cry Me’ in the last sentence is to the version by Ella Fitzgerald, for whom the tune was written; while it has not been recorded by many pianists, Brad Mehldau has a version with the melody clearly stated and spare counterpoint in the left hand.) Coker goes on to catalog many instances in which these phrases are used by various players on various tunes.  In this post I will suggest a timeline for how a melodic idea may have made its way from Bud Powell’s playing to Wynton Kelly’s playing.  By doing this I am hoping to show both that, for developing improvisers, there is more to building melodic vocabulary than just learning and transposing melodic phrases in their original form.  Through some process, conscious or subconscious, those ideas have to combine with the rest of one’s vocabulary until, like the scraps in a compost heap, they start to change form. 

On May 8, 1947, Bud Powell made his only studio recording with Charlie Parker, at a time when the  saxophonist’s fame as a soloist and bandleader had recently begun to rise.  He had recorded with pianists including Dodo Marmarosa, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner and Sadik Hakim, and had even used Dizzy Gillespie on piano at one point, but he had not yet done a recording session with Powell, who was becoming known as an erratic genius.  As Peter Pullman notes in his biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, although Parker and Powell had worked together on and off since mid-1945, Powell did not show up for Parker’s first recording as a leader that same year, despite being the pianist in his working band, and had to be replaced by Hakim and Gillespie.  Earlier that year, the pianist had missed his first opportunity to play with Parker in Cootie Williams’ band because Parker joined the band while Powell was on leave from it while being institutionalized in a series of psychiatric hospitals.  After the 1947 recording sessions, Parker and Powell would go on to play more live performances together where their odd-couple dynamic was on full display.  As I mention in an earlier blog post, these performances, preserved on the albums One Night In Birdland and Jazz At Massey Hall, contain brilliant playing by both musicians, but also examples of how Powell’s idiosyncrasies as an accompanist threw Parker off his usual unshakeable balance.  On both these recordings, Powell sometimes can be heard musically irritating Parker and in one case nearly derailing him with a confusing intro.  The ways Parker resists Powell’s musical disruptions is masterful, and the counterpoint between them is sometimes hilarious.

Pullman notes that at the May 1947 session, Powell is ‘not given much solo space on any of the takes’ – on what became the most famous recording from the session, Donna Lee, Powell is given only 16 bars to improvise – but that he ‘steals a chance to shine on “Buzzy” ‘, one of the two Parker tunes on twelve-bar blues forms from the session.  On his solo from the master take of the tune that was released as a single the same year, Powell deftly quotes a phrase from m. 3-4 of ‘Donna Lee’, the tune recorded at the beginning of the session, perhaps showing a desire to connect musically with his bandmates. He closes his first chorus of solo with a figure in m. 11 that descends from F4 to F3, embellishing a Bb major 6th arpeggio on the way.  Powell would use a slightly more chromatic version of this same figure to close his iconic solo on Un Poco Loco four years later in May of 1951.

In July of 1951, in the same recording studio where Powell recorded Un Poco Loco, a young Wynton Kelly did the first of two sessions that would become his first album as a leader, Piano Interpretations.  In a 1963 interview where he gave a quick rundown of his recordings as a leader, Kelly referred to this album as ‘one I made in 1950 [sic] when I was 19 that doesn’t even count’, but it actually shows the beginnings of what would make Kelly a unique, pivotal and sought-after accompanist and soloist in mid-twentieth-century jazz.  Kelly also pays tribute to Bud Powell in the interview, saying: “I respect Bud as one of the main figures in starting modern jazz piano.”  In his version of Cherokee, Kelly begins his solo with a phrase very similar to the closing move from Powell’s ‘Buzzy’ solo.  (The release date of ‘Buzzy’ makes it possible Kelly might have heard it, while ‘Un Poco Loco’ was not released before the time of Kelly’s session.) On his second use of the lick at 1:09, Kelly incorporates the first six notes of Powell’s phrase (F-E-Eb-D-Bb-G) and adds his own tail (G-Gb-F-Eb). Kelly continues to return to the idea throughout the solo, never reproducing it exactly but working with shorter variants of it, playing it higher registers than Powell did, but in the same key. 

While Kelly is working with many Bud Powell-inspired phrases in the right hand, his left hand alternates between compound-tenth voicings typical of Powell’s playing and the higher rootless voicings that would become a trademark of his sound in his work with Miles Davis.  In comparison to the nearly non-stop right-hand monologue that Powell carried on in his solo on Serenade to A Square, which uses the Cherokee chord progression and which Kelly may have also heard, Kelly’s solo is distinctive and ground-breaking for its use of what George Colligan calls ‘hand to hand conversation’ to create space within his solo.  Through taking a more conversational approach initiated by his left hand, Kelly introduces the crucial element of space, allowing the listener to hear Powell’s language in a new way – as one half of a conversation rather than a monologue.

It is a sign of how indispensable Kelly became as a sideman, as well as perhaps a clue about his personality, that he did not record another album as a leader (other than a session co-led with Lee Morgan) until the album Piano seven years later.  In the interim, he recorded with a ‘who’s who’ of jazz soloists, most prominently Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Benny Golson, Dinah Washington and Dizzy Gillespie. On Piano, Kelly returned to his personalized version of the Bud Powell lick to open his solo on the tune ‘Action’.  This time, he adds to his chromatic tail with a mordant (D-Db-D) leading down to the root.

The recording of Buzzy was likely an awkward situation for Bud Powell; whatever the reason Powell had missed Parker’s first session, it was the first time Parker got to test out his erratic bandmate in the isolated environment of the recording studio.    In a similar way, the recording of Miles Davis’ now classic Kind of Blue may have been awkward for Wynton Kelly.  Davis had hired Kelly in 1958, prior to the recording of Kind of Blue, and continued to use Kelly in live concerts through the early 1960s.   As Ashley Kahn writes, when Kind of Blue was recorded,  ‘despite having hired Wynton Kelly to take over the piano spot[in his band]…Davis called [Bill] Evans and set up studio time at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio.’  In Miles: The Autobiography, Davis writes that ‘ Wynton joined us just before I was going into the studio to make Kind of Blue, but I had already planned that album around the piano playing of Bill Evans, who had agreed to play on it with us.’  

A more magnanimous bandleader might have have been motivated to bring Kelly in on one tune of the album at least partly to appease hurt feelings.  Davis, however, was famously single-minded and unsentimental in his musical decisions. According to Cannonball Adderley, he fired pianist Red Garland, with whom he recorded five of his most influential albums, and hired Kelly when he happened to be in the audience at a gig for which pianist Garland was late. So it is more likely that his reasons for having Kelly on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ were purely musical.  The form and style of the tune – straight-ahead jazz blues – is one that Evans avoided throughout his solo career, and  one at which Kelly excelled and which he chose often on his solo records.  Davis was quoted as saying, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’ 

In his Freddie Freeloader solo, Kelly finds yet another variation on the lick that had started out as an echo of Bud Powell’s phrase.  In this permutation, he gives the phrase a different ‘head’, replacing the opening triplet with a three-note ascent (Bb-Db-D).  He also alters the ‘tail’ he had added to Powell’s lick through the use of a phrase common in Charlie Parker’s solos, identified as the ‘four lick’ by Barry Harris (F-Eb-C-Db-D natural.)  This alteration of both ends of the phrase is one reason I would say the Freddie Freeloader solo marks the ‘innovation’ stage in Kelly’s use of Powell’s lick; another way that Kelly innovates is in the way that he begins the lick on a ‘weak’ beat (beat two).  In all his other uses of the lick, Kelly makes the main accent of the phrase fall on a strong beat.  Moving the lick to beat two, as well as compressing it into sixteenth notes, allows Kelly to fit the lick into a ‘hand to hand conversation’ phrase where the strong beat is occupied by the left hand ‘chord question’. 

In my view, it is not a coincidence that the last solo in this chronological sequence is also the one in which Kelly employs the ‘hand to hand conversation’ strategy most clearly.  In a future blog post, I will discuss how Kelly went on to develop the conversational strategy in his improvising as a problem-solving technique for tunes where composers including John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter presented him with the challenge of improvising on unfamiliar chord progressions. 

(I used the Bud Powell Discography and Wynton Kelly Discography at jazzdisco.org as references for this post.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.