‘Wail’: A biography of Bebop piano pioneer Bud Powell
Jazz critic Paul de Barros talks to jazz writer Peter Pullman about his recent biography, “The Life of Bud Powell.”
Seattle Times Jazz Critic
Jazz books often arrive on notoriously slow trains.
For years — no, decades — a well-respected writer in New York was said to be working on the definitive biography of pianist Thelonious Monk, only to be passed up by another scholar who worked a mere 14 years on his.
Now, 16 years after signing a book contract, independent scholar Peter Pullman has produced a much-anticipated biography of the other great bebop piano pioneer, Bud Powell.
“Wail: The Life of Bud Powell” has been well worth the wait, though thanks to the changing landscape of publishing, Pullman wound up publishing the book himself, first as an eBook, then in print, both at his own expense. (You can purchase “Wail” in either format at www.wailthelifeofbudpowell.com or as an eBook only at www.Amazon.com.)
“The frustration I had with book publishers made me look to alternatives,” said Pullman in a phone interview from his Brooklyn home. “But I was a naif. I thought, ‘There’s a revolution going on. Let me look into being a part of it and not be just another middle aged, cranky person.’ I had to learn the hard way that [the eBook] wasn’t going to get the respect and the attention.”
That’s a shame.
Pullman’s compelling, immaculately researched tale digs thoroughly and unsentimentally into the life and art of a man who, until now, has been perceived mostly through myth and caricature.
Born in Harlem in 1924, Earl “Bud” Powell was a prodigy who, along with his early mentor, Monk, was part of a cadre of players who re-imagined jazz in the 1940s. Through hundreds of interviews and a meticulous, chronological investigation of the historical record — including hospital and FBI files — Pullman gives a granular, sometimes cinematic account of Powell’s role in the bebop movement — first in Harlem, then on Manhattan’s 52nd Street, and then in Paris, where he moved in 1959. (Powell’s life there was dramatized in the film “ ’Round Midnight.”)
Musically, Powell adapted the fleet, harmonically complex lines of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker to the piano. However, unlike Parker and his flamboyant partner, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Powell was pathologically withdrawn and got little credit for what he did until his health and prowess had failed.
Pullman, who started his project in 1992 while editing the notes for “The Complete Bud Powell on Verve,” posits that Powell was so thoroughly spoiled by his parents, who regularly told him he was a genius, that he failed to learn even the most basic social skills, such as having a simple conversation.
Hence the disturbing images that have passed into jazz lore: Powell playing at Birdland with hypnotic, thunderous power, but grinning diabolically at the crowd, then walking past people in the club as if they didn’t exist; Powell being beaten by a white policeman in Philadelphia in 1945, then getting sent to a mental hospital for shock treatments (one of many such incarcerations).
Pullman parses these images, making a plausible case that Powell was not seriously affected by the Philadelphia beating and that it was not necessarily inspired by racism. Pullman also reopens another famous incident, in which Thelonious Monk was said to have selflessly taken a heroin rap for Powell. (The police record, which no one had bothered to check before, shows that Monk pleaded “not guilty.”)
These are helpful antidotes to mythology. But Pullman is less convincing when he suggests that Powell, diagnosed over and over as “manic depressive,” did not have mental issues. In fact, Powell’s lack of affect, obliviousness to other peoples’ feelings and inability to have a relationship — all carefully depicted in “Wail” — sound suspiciously like someone who might be diagnosed today as autistic.
“Other people have used that term, too,” says Pullman. “I try not to use labels ... His problems were social, not psychological.”
This distaste for labels leads Pullman into some tight corners. He refuses, for example, to use the term “race” (preferring the annoying phrase “so-called race”), yet goes on to make up his own — “afram” (for black) and “euram” (for white). His eagerness to include every detail of Powell’s life results in a volume that is far too long.
“If a good editor had gotten a hold of me it would be a tighter book,” he admits.
“Wail’s” detail will be welcome to scholars, but for lay readers, it slows down a compelling and unutterably sad tale of a misfit genius tossed from one self-interested caretaker to the next.
Meantime, thanks to walking out on his publishers, Pullman has the piper to pay, starting with a $12,000 advance he still may have to return, plus $600 for producing the eBook and $9,500 for the print edition. (The eBook is actually more readable than the print, which is in nine point type).
So far, Pullman’s sales have been in the low hundreds, but the upside is that when he sells a book, like a musician selling a self-produced CD, he gets all the money.
“But I’ve gotta have reviews,” he says. “That’s the reality.”
He’s right, and the book deserves it. But it’s probably going to be a long haul.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org