Guthrie Ramsey’s book on Bud Powell is both a provocative read and a disappointing one. Anyone thinking this will be an illuminating portrait of a jazz master is likely to suffer a serious case of buyer’s remorse.
The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. University of California Press, 254 pages, $34.95
By Steve Elman
There are at least three groups of passionate jazzpeople – committed fans, obsessives, and academics. I confess to being one of the first and also one of the second (example: I’m delighted in what must surely be a neurotic way by owning “The Complete Blue Note and Roost Recordings of Bud Powell” and “The Complete Bud Powell on Verve,” just to cite two of my treasures).
But I’ve had little contact with jazz academia. Maybe this makes me a less-than-ideal reader of The Amazing Bud Powell, a new collection of essays exploring the place of bebop in American cultural and social history by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. On the other hand, maybe my lack of familiarity with the academic landscape makes me a good representative of the Trade side of the publishing world. For me, this was both a provocative read and a disappointing one. Anyone tempted by its title into thinking that this book is an illuminating portrait of a jazz master is likely to suffer a serious case of buyer’s remorse.
This is probably not Ramsey’s fault. He certainly has the credentials to support a music book of intellectual heft – he’s a working keyboard player known professionally as Guy Ramsey, an endowed professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. And he is absolutely clear about his purposes. The subtitle of the book is Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop, which should clue a reader that the book is going to be more expansive than biographical. In his introduction, he outlines his goals in language cautioning the casual jazz fan that he intends to dive into deep water:
The Amazing Bud Powell . . . puts what we know about Powell’s life and music in dialogue with ideas that made possible, among other things, his reputation as a musical “genius” and bebop’s social identity as a singular art form . . . this book, one that centralizes the contributions of Bud Powell, details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness.
It may be that the marketers at the University of California Press saw a chance to broaden the audience for the book beyond the academic world, and if so, they have done the author and his potential readers something of a disservice.
Ramsey’s five essays are essentially independent meditations, even though they are called “Chapters.” The first “discusses bebop’s pedigree as a serious art.” The second puts “Powell’s artistic agency . . . in the context of modern jazz’s growth in the music industry and in the broader world of black artistic experimentation in the 1940s and 1950s” (This essay is the one closest to traditional biography.) The third identifies “art discourse, the idea of ‘blackness’ in historical jazz criticism, and American psychiatric practice . . . as important structural factors . . . bearing on our contemporary understanding of Powell and his accomplishments.” The fourth “deconstruct[s] what constitutes jazz manhood, or, in Powell’s specific case . . . declare[s] how the notion of his genius is a very gendered proposition from top to bottom.” The fifth describes the distinctive roles that beboppers gave to the various instruments of their small groups, and provides in-depth analyses of five of Powell’s solos and four of his compositions with transcriptions.
In short, this is not light reading.
If any of these topics intrigue you, you will find a lot to chew on in Ramsey’s essays. Here are several highlights of the book (for me), in no particular order, that show just how far Ramsey ranges: his observation that the beboppers’ distinctive counter-cultural dress derived from the zoot suit and its accessories; his concise history of jazz scholarship, fusing the line of committed-fan writers and the line of academic writers, including an investigation of how New Criticism affected jazz writing (although he leaves out Albert Murray’s Stompin’ the Blues, which for me is an indispensable work); his comparison of Bud to the nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; the connection of Kenny Clarke’s drumming to West African percussion conventions; the identification of elements of jazz as “masculine” and “feminine,” an idea that is new to me but apparently has wide currency in the academic world; and his generous credit to fellow writers and critics for dozens of facts and insights.
Wearing only my fan/obsessive hats, I want to note some areas where I think the book could have been better.
I have two difficulties with Ramsey’s characterizations of bebop.
First, for all that’s been written about bebop as a musical revolution, I think there’s plenty of evidence to see it as a logical progression in jazz, and Ramsey too often accepts the received wisdom that the beboppers turned the jazz world on its ear. Throughout jazz history, there is a constant push to open up the harmony, often met by puzzlement from the audience (example: Coleman Hawkins’s “Queer Notions” ); there is an unstoppable thrust towards the expression of greater emotional nuance in performance (examples: Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust” ; many of Benny Carter’s original compositions from the 1920s and 1930s, and any of Billie Holiday’s song interpretations); and a willingness to embrace the exotic (example: Ellington’s jungle music). All of these elements are manifest in bebop – in boldface, to be sure, and for the first time thrust into the faces of the average jazz listener with a “Who cares?” attitude.
Second, Ramsey might have considered what I see as bebop’s essential instability. The classic bebop recordings have a chamber-music austerity and a burning intensity – they are both smart and hot – and this mix was probably impossible to maintain in the long run. One testament to this is that every post-classic-era performance that attempts to take on that “classic bebop feel” seems imitative at best and dated at worst. For a seminal musical movement, this has to be considered a weakness. It may have been inevitable that the elements would come apart – that hard bop would take the hot parts and make them more melodic and approachable, and that the cool school (including John Lewis, George Russell, Gerry Mulligan, and Gil Evans) would embrace the intellectual aspects of bebop and enrich them with greater emotional complexity. In any case, these two streams begat far more in terms of jazz development than did the pure bebop recordings.
More to the heart of the book, I wondered repeatedly about the appropriateness of Bud Powell to the intellectual work that Ramsey wants to do. Dizzy Gillespie would have been a much stouter peg on which to hang all this theorizing. Bud was an emotionally unstable man, to put it mildly; his strange dislocations from reality, even while performing, look to some observers like something on the autism spectrum. Can such a fragile individual, such an idiosyncratic case, really illuminate so many cultural and sociological observations? On the other hand, Dizzy Gillespie undertook every aspect of his career with intelligence, savvy, and not a little edge. He was both the stablest and the smartest of the first generation of beboppers, and his work spanned almost fifty years of constant development, most of which is on a superlative artistic level. In addition, he was fully aware of himself as a sociological phenomenon and as the representative of a movement. Lastly, his political consciousness was never far from the surface of his music (examples: the fury of the early big-band “Things to Come” and the cagy burlesque of the later “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac”).
In discussing Bud’s technical gifts, Ramsey misses something vitally important – what I would call the “etched quality” of Bud’s sound on the piano. When Powell is playing well, it is not only his speed that is amazing; it is his razor-sharp articulation. No other pianist – not even Barry Harris, who reveres Bud like a god – can get precisely the hard edge on each note that Bud seems to achieve effortlessly. What makes that sound even more distinctive is his remarkable placement of notes. He seems to hold some notes back by microseconds and advance others by microseconds, creating remarkable effects of tension and release, even in long fluid lines of melody.
There are some assertions in the book that I found puzzling and unsupported.
In his first essay, Ramsey argues that “black audiences have continually demanded that musicians be avant-garde with regard to their treatment of traditional musical materials” (Ramsey’s italics). He may very well support this contention with arguments in his book Race Music (unread by me, as Stanley Kauffman might say), but in this context, the statement comes across as a sweeping generalization. For some people in the black audience, this is undoubtedly true, but is it so for all black listeners?
He also cites (apparently approvingly) Max Roach’s comment that “The only reason that the music of the Gershwins and all these people [that is, other Tin Pan Alley songwriters] lived during that period [the 1940s and 1950s] was because all the black people, the Billie Holidays, Ella Fitzgeralds, Dizzy Gillespies, Charlie Parkers, the Monks, the Coleman Hawkinses, projected this music, used this music and kept it alive.” This breathtakingly sweeps aside the entire tradition of pop-song crooners and cabaret singers, who are at least equally important (and probably more important) than jazz people in maintaining the classic American popular song in the ears of the mass audience.
When Ramsey gets to his musical analyses, especially of Bud’s solos, I have to ride along in relative ignorance. I am a barely competent reader of music, and I have much less familiarity with harmonic theory than does a working musician like Ramsey. In addition, he has selected some rather obscure material to transcribe and analyze, with the exception of “Nice Work if You Can Get It.”
But I can express some concerns about Ramsey’s selection of four original Powell tunes for analysis. They are: “Fool’s Fancy,” co-credited to Kenny Dorham; ‘”Bud’s Bubble” aka “Crazeology,” sometimes credited to Bennie Harris; “Webb City,” co-credited to Gil Fuller; and “Bebop in Pastel.”
All four are very good examples of Bud as single-note composer and they are among his most singable themes. However, Ramsey misses an opportunity to comment on Bud’s radical approach to harmony by failing to consider or to transcribe the introductions to “Bebop in Pastel” or “Fool’s Fancy” – arguably, these introductions are not throwaway notes, but basic elements of the tunes as Bud conceived them. These two compositions, along with “Dance of the Infidels,” just to name one more, are notable to my ear for their introductions because Bud begins with music that has no harmonic center, giving the listener a jolt and challenging him or her to find a footing before familiar chords establish themselves.
This isn’t just a feature of Bud’s music; it is a feature of many bebop tunes. Dizzy Gillespie did the same thing (“Salt Peanuts” and the famous arrangement of “All the Things You Are” are a couple of obvious examples). However, Bud’s intros are among the most harmonically interesting of all the classic bebop recordings, and a little nod to his originality here would have been valuable.
It also would have been instructive to have just one of those four tunes replaced by a later composition. Ramsey cites three of the most interesting tunes Bud wrote in his later years – “Glass Enclosure,” “Parisian Thoroughfare,” and “Un Poco Loco,” but he does not choose to analyze any of them. “Un Poco Loco” would have been a wonderful choice, because its theme is not a line of single notes, but a series of complex chords that camouflage their root notes.
Ramsey also fails to provide a transcript or analysis of at least one Powell solo on any of his own tunes, which would have been very instructive, considering the serious discussions in the book of the harmonic complexity of the themes. “Webb City” would have been an ideal opportunity. Instead of the standard three-minute format driven by the practical length of a 78, this performance runs 5:41, since someone (probably Gil Fuller, the arranger) made the decision to set out something in a longer form and split it over two sides of a 78. “Webb City” has two full choruses of Bud soloing, plus what sounds like the first and last halves of another two-chorus solo that overlap the two sides of the original – or possibly the recording was conceived as a fadeout and fadeup, creating the illusion of a full solo interrupted by the disc flip. In any case, the recording has three choruses of inspired Bud on a good day. Any one of the early Bud solos that is analyzed in Ramsey’s book could have been sacrificed in favor of a comprehensive analysis of theme and solo in one of Bud’s own tunes.
Above all, one central question kept gnawing at me as I read: how does all of this illuminate and enrich the experience of hearing Bud play? When I began to compare the recordings I own with the transcriptions Ramsey provides, it hit me: the pleasure I take in listening to Bud (or to any of the beboppers, for that matter) begins as an emotional response to the music and only then moves onto the intellectual plane. Ramsey evokes precious little of this visceral engagement with Bud’s recordings, and because of this, the entire book is a bit bloodless. Regrettably, this is made worse by the writing. Ramsey is not a first-rate prose stylist, and his language is all too often tangled up in ivy.
PS: I recently visited Peter Pullman’s website, on the strength of a passing reference in Ramsey’s book that Pullman was at work on a full-length Powell biography. The samples of the work I saw on the site were so tantalizing that I immediately ordered a copy of Pullman’s Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, and I hope to write about it in the weeks to come.
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.