UC Press Podcast: The Amazing Bud Powell

The Amazing Bud PowellIn this special edition of the UC Press Podcast, our Music editor Mary Francis introduces author Guy Ramsey, whom she’s worked with for 10 years. Read Mary’s account of the backstory behind the project, then listen to the podcast below. 

I’ve worked with Guy Ramsey on some truly fantastic projects, starting with his ground-breaking Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (2003), and continuing with his role as editor for our Music of the African Diaspora series. I have always loved Bud Powell’s music, and until now Powell’s legacy as an architect of the bebop idiom had not yet been given its due. I was excited about The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop right from the start because I knew that Guy would be able to write something revelatory about Bud Powell, for a lot of reasons.

First, because Guy is a terrific pianist himself. If it takes one to know one, a versatile musician like Guy was bound to have plenty of insight into what makes Bud Powell’s musical language so inventive and compelling.  Beyond his musical intelligence, Guy understands Powell’s seminal contribution to the history of jazz and cultural life in such a multifaceted way. Powell’s life, and the stories we tell about it, was shaped by tragedy: struggles against racial prejudice in its myriad forms, outright abuse at the hands of white authorities.  But Powell’s life was also shaped by his own independence of mind about his goals as a composer and performer.  Guy is able to work with the story of Powell’s life, use it as a lens through which we can look critically at the concepts of race and ‘genius.’ Guy’s portrait of Powell as an artist delves into the history of bebop and modernism in a way that should interest anyone who cares about modernism and the arts at midcentury.

One day Guy and I were discussing the project on the phone, and we got to talking about Jørgen Leth’s first film, Stopforbud (1963). Guy mentions the film in his podcast as a great introduction to Powell, and I share his enthusiasm. This gorgeous black and white short follows Powell, dapper and solitary, as he strolls the streets of Copenhagen, accompanied by the sound of his playing.  Powell’s steps are sometimes on the path as he crosses a bridge or moves through a gate.  But sometimes he strikes out across a field of stones, or a dock: he’s taking his own path, just as his music does.  The visual and aural pairing is spare and expressive; like Powell’s phrasing, the camera angles are often unconventional, even challenging, but deliberate and convincing.  I think both Guy and I appreciate the empathy Leth seems to have with Powell and his music, and I think Guy’s own approach to the amazing Bud Powell shows an equally rewarding empathy and insight.

—Mary Francis

Listen to the podcast now:  

Watch Stopforbud: