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The Amazing Bud Powell Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

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"Cullud Boys with Beards"

Serious Black Music and the Art of Bebop

Little cullud boys with beards

re-bop be-bop mop and stop.

Little cullud boys with fears,

frantic, kick their draftee years

into flatted fifths and flatter beers

that at a sudden change become

sparkling Oriental wines rich and strange ...

--Langston Hughes, "Flatted Fifths"

In her treasury of private memories, Bud Powell's daughter, Celia, recalls her father as an uncomplicated man, "content with the simple things in life, not wanting much more than a meal and to play." But in the public world where he established his fame, Powell cut a more challenging figure. His work represents, for many, a pinnacle of artistic achievement among the pantheon of brilliant jazz pianists. His relentless flow of musical ideas-their unsettling rhythmic disjunction; those explosive launches into beautifully crafted passages of push, pull, run, and riff, punctuated by the perfect landing at ferocious speeds-remains an inspiring, though intimidating, factor for pianists who come behind him. Indeed, his brilliance in the bebop idiom pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to high standards of performance that have rarely been matched. His contributions have been as germane to the modern jazz pianist's training as Czerny five-finger exercises and Bach Inventions are to that of classically trained pianists. Despite his importance to jazz, he remains one of the music's lesser-known figures. Yet he was a towering pianist who inspires awe and respect among those in the know.

As one of the select group of gifted mid-twentieth-century "cullud boys," Powell can teach us much about what made his chosen idiom such a dramatic and poignant musical statement. Here and in following chapters, I discuss some of the themes and issues-musical and otherwise-that show how Powell's bebop worked as a commercialized, racialized, gendered, and age-specific enterprise. Throughout his lifetime, jazz developed from a cultish, ethnic-infused vogue to the sound of American pop to a demanding avant-garde. Within this dynamic continuum of pedigree shifts, Powell's work can also be seen as entangled in the aesthetic legacies of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson, among others whose artistic lives helped to create a cultural space for the learning, practice, and dissemination of the art of jazz. At the same time, there are those who believe that we should retain the political edge that bebop once possessed as a stand-alone tradition. Eric Lott, for example, has lamented what he sees as the casual commercialization of a