Review…’The Amazing Bud Powell’ by Guthrie Ramsey

[This review was published in the journal Jazz Perspectives (vol. 8, no. 1). Download a copy from my webpage. -ML]

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop. By Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0520243910 (hardcover). 240 pp. $34.95.

In The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop,Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., unpacks the mythology around pianist and composer Earl “Bud” Powell (1924-1966) with particular attention to the social contexts surrounding his career and life. Rather than another monograph that reiterates the “Great Man” model of jazz historiography, Ramsey expands on recent scholarship, literature and biographies about the bebop era and its practitioners in a significant and illuminating fashion. The book’s most compelling quality is the author’s seemingly effortless moves among cultural studies, socio-economic critique, musicological analysis, and beyond, in all of which Ramsey demonstrates equal mastery. Uncovering “the audible traces of [the] struggle for a cultural and social identity” for African Americans during the bebop era (8), Ramsey draws stark and compelling parallels between Powell’s medical records, business contracts, scored compositions, and recorded improvisations, then accents them even further by transposing these parallels into his own writing. After the recent publication of several significant biographical works in jazz studies, such as those by George Lewis on AACM,[1] Robin D.G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk,[2] and Peter Pullman on Powell (published after Ramsey’s book),[3] The Amazing Bud Powell is a refreshing and necessary counterexample. Whereas the authors of these larger biographies, which are all of superior quality, strove to compile, circumscribe, and treat their subjects as an archivist might, Ramsey’s book on Powell reads in a much more lithe and agile fashion, deftly weaving among subjects, academic disciplines, and research methodologies, while leaving ample room for conversation, interpretation, and expansion.

At its most fundamental level, The Amazing Bud Powell considers the connections between bebop music and the everyday social contexts in which its practitioners operated. In the same way that the stylistic and compositional practices of bebop solidified over time, so too did the “performance rituals, visual appearance, the types of social and ideological connotations associated with [the musical details], and their relationship to the material conditions of production” (7). Ramsey views these two aspects of bebop – and any musical genre or artistic movement – as inseparable from one another, suggesting that any analysis of one without the other would be incomplete. For Ramsey, aesthetics are inextricably linked with politics and as such, he teases out the “audible traces” of bebop in various realms of contemporary life, such as visual art and literature, public discourse and reportage, everyday fashion and language, and the music recording and mental health industries. Drawing on previous scholarship by Amiri Baraka and Gunther Schuller, he chooses Powell as an “exceptional archetype” through which to examine these interrelationships not only for Powell’s stature as a major innovative in bebop piano practice but also for the extent to which his psychological issues and reception among critics elucidate the connections between aesthetics and politics for which Ramsey argues. How, Ramsey asks, “do we make sense of Bud Powell’s music as that of someone whose talents could never lift him above the challenges he faced as a uniquely but disabled black American man at a time of tumultuous transitions in the material conditions of African Americans across the board?” (11).

Taking a cue from Samuel Floyd, Jr., in chapter one, “‘Cullud Boys with Beards’: Serious Black Music and the Art of Bebop,” Ramsey discusses some of the “cultural transactions” surrounding Powell’s performances. Floyd suggests that, in order to fully understand the cultural and aesthetic significance of musical performances, analysts must act as translators interpreting and relating these performances’ contemporary contexts and historical import. As such Ramsey explores how critics categorized and understood Powell, his music, and bebop culture; he then steps back to examine the way in which these critiques and reviews continue to shape our understanding of Powell, African American jazz musicians, and the bebop era more generally. At the root of these popular press and journalistic portrayals lies a reliance on discursive and analytical tropes borrowed from Western European classical music (e.g., timeless, fine art unencumbered by commercial or popular influence), which in Ramsey’s estimation forces the music and the movement away from its actual contexts and the lived experiences of Powell and others. Despite associations with art music, bebop’s constant and continual dependence on commerce – record label, audiences, and public consumption – ties it to cultural politics and everyday social interactions without which it cannot be adequately understood. Ramsey accentuates this connection by reframing Powell, Charlie Parker, and other bebop musicians as black male youths “engaged in a public struggle for their commercial lives and, by extension, their social lives, in a context in which they exercised little control over the public meaning and discursive dissemination of their work” (33). Beyond its sonic characteristics, the bebop aesthetic as expressed through language, clothing, comportment, interpersonal relations, and as disseminated through now-iconic photography acted not just as affects but as everyday instantiations of an ongoing “battle of subcultures” between Uptown and Midtown Manhattan with the performance venues of 52nd Street serving as a contact zone in which these conflicts were worked out, confronted, and fought over.

Chapter two, “Something Else: The Tests and Triumphs of a Modernist” outlines the conditions and contexts in which Powell composed, performed, and lived. Leading with Langston Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, Ramsey marvels at how “in the face of profound and naturalized bigotry, the toughest economic exploitation, and the crippling effects of substance abuse among their ranks, these musicians as a whole went on to contribute immeasurably to American and international musical life” (58). With further supporting evidence from writer Ralph Ellison, visual artist Norman Lewis, and some of Powell’s musical contemporaries, Ramsey establishes a firm connection between art, aesthetics, and politics among the African American community, situating Powell’s pianism squarely within “a sensibility of virtuoso experimentation [consisting of] rich polyrhythms and disjunctive melodic contours, explosive and defiant nonfigurative abstraction, and offbeat prose that plowed and cultivated the black American experience in ways that voiced the concerns of a people” (75). However, Powell – and many others – suffered for these attempts to break open discursive space and forge critical revisions of contemporary politics through their art. “Notes and Tones: Black Genius in the Social Order” (chapter three) highlights some of the political issues these musicians were confronting, especially the disjuncture between Western European conceptions of musical genius and the social reality of African American bebop musicians like Powell who were simultaneously uplifted for their brilliance and beat down by the systemic racism that permeated many aspects of their everyday lives. This model of genius, adopted by contemporary jazz critics and writers as a means of elevating bebop to the level of art music, relies on a conception of timelessness that contradicts Ramsey’s insistence on the connection between art and its contemporary contexts. Rather, employing Powell as a prime example, he suggests that “genius…is a historically situated designation, a social process best illuminated by exploring the interactions among specific social identities, cultural structures, and social orders” (88). For Powell and bebop musicians this “historically situated designation” must be read within the contemporary contexts that understand music on “a continuum between literacy and athletic ability” and within histories of racist anti-intellectualism that naturalized black musical talent (ibid.). Grappling with this and the music’s continuous exploration of Africa and African American collective memory made the bebop scene a prime arena for working out contemporary race relations and cordoned it and its practitioners (Powell included) off from the realm of timeless art. Because the challenges and prejudices of that era were so suffused in the aesthetics, performances, and everyday experiences of the bebop world, any claims of timeless, transcendent genius were quickly brought back down to earth by the harsh realities of power imbalances, social inequality, and violence. In one of the book’s most significant contributions, Ramsey shows how the inability to reconcile these two powerful forces – artistic brilliance and institutionalized racism – often played out in the realm of medicine: self-medication through drug use from below, and disproportionate diagnoses of psychological disorders from above. Powell’s position as a young black male engaged in the aesthetic politics of bebop and its public performance, then, was a prime target for illicit drug use (as Ramsey shows through a discussion of 52nd Street and the “spatial logic” of the New York City jazz club scene), an emerging commercial market for his recordings characterized by “asymmetrical power relations” that marginalized black musicians (112), and a mental health industry that employed drastic treatments like electroshock therapy for a clinical inability to effectively cope with and treat what they viewed as “a black man’s disease of rage, volatility, and aggression” (108).

In the next chapter, “Making the Changes: Jazz Manhood, Bebop Virtuosity, and a New Social Contract,” Ramsey further contextualizes Powell’s genius by examining how bebop aesthetics and performance practice were gendered and how, even amid the marginalized status and violence to which they were subjected, African American bebop musicians – rather, its jazzmen – were still able to carve out positions of power and influence by creating a “patriarchal, heroic performance space, one that became the new musical language of ‘jazz manhood’” (121). Ramsey shows how, for example, in the same way that bebop’s aesthetic politics called for a public space to express an African American critique of Modernism (Ramsey discusses Afromodernism at length in his earlier monograph Race Music),[4] this discursive space also acted as a stage for establishing these critical aesthetic politics as phallocentric and male-dominated. This work was not the sole purview of musicians, however: jazz critics amplified these gendered narratives, creating a vision of the bebop musician as a combination of musical genius and a toiling, black male body. Ramsey makes clear how, when added to the interpretative opinions of the listening community and mediating influence of the commercial music industry,African American bebop musicians required a mobility – an improvisatory disposition beyond the bandstand – for navigating this complex milieu in order to carve out successful careers and lives. According to Ramsey, “this pedigree of multiplicity made the music of ‘cullud boys and ‘flatted fifths’ a powerful space for Powell to explore his own muse, to self-fashion an artistic identity, and change the course of jazz pianism by exploiting and moving against tradition” (137). Ramsey previews his analysis of the following chapter with a vignette on Ornette Coleman’s push against the “orthodoxies of jazz practice” and, through a reference to David Ake’s research,[5] of normative masculinity in jazz (142). This subtle transition proves to be a potent and highly artful rhetorical move that makes space for Ramsey to explore Powell’s work as a precedent to Coleman’s widely accepted avant-gardism while simultaneously attuning his reading audience to the similar but more subtly situated experimentalism within what we now understand to be “conventional” bebop practice.

The book’s final chapter, “Exploding Narratives and Structures in the Art of Bud Powell,” demonstrates the potential of Ramsey’s scholarly approach, which is realized within the same “pedigree of multiplicity” in which he situates Powell. Rather than a summation, in this chapter Ramsey refocuses all of the book’s themes through close, score-based readings of Powell’s music, locating them in Powell’s bebop pianism. Leading with pianist Vijay Iyer’s writings on embodied practice in improvised music, Ramsey defines the chief characteristic of Powell’s playing as “againstness,” demonstrating how in musical practice Powell enacts his own expression of bebop’s aesthetic politics by “exploiting the space between the formulaic or cliché and what would be heard as more innovative gestures” (148). In the same way that African American bebop musicians fought to carve out viable, successful lives in a space somewhere between the policies and rhetoric of institutionalized racism and their (and critics’, audiences’, the market’s) aspirations for their art, Powell worked to self-fashion an artistic identity on the bandstand by subtly playing off expectations of jazz piano performance practice. With a precision attuned to the smallest musical gesture, Ramsey highlights Powell’s manipulation of this “againstness” in his accompanying, improvising, and compositional practices, tracing the development of a style that revolutionized jazz piano practice and thrilled both musicians and audiences. Closing the chapter with a repeated call for attention to the contexts of musical performance, Ramsey suggests that “Powell’s ‘fitting together of parts and pieces’ and combination of heterogenous sonic materials and sensibilities made a compelling artistic statement, not by obliterating the sources of the things used…but by allowing them to be recognized by the competent listener” (185). In this way bebop performance practice builds its audience and its political aesthetic by embedding the present—“all the traces of this historic, social, artistic, personal, and ideological complex”—into the music, but in a reworked fashion: through individual expressions of a collective critique that makes space for difference and variation.

In the final chapter Ramsey elaborates on Iyer’s research on embodied practice in improvisation, describing how “kinesthetics, performativity, personal sound, temporality…generate reflect, and refract stories [i.e., jazz solos and other narratives] into innumerable splinters and shards” (147). Ramsey applies this understanding of narrative in jazz performance to his own writing, presenting a highly nuanced depiction of Powell through the careful arrangement of multiple, interrelated themes and issues in The Amazing Bud Powell. The book—like one of Powell’s piano solos—could be read as a mosaic: a cohesive re-assemblage of distinct but related elements, organized so as to simultaneously draw attention to the overall depiction of its subject while allowing enough space for recognizing the contours of each of its constituent elements. Among each of the contrasting themes that he presents, Ramsey is not implying false equivalencies, nor drawing perfunctory comparisons, but allowing the strong resonances to rise to an audible level, to let the sympathetic and synchronous vibrations of life’s complexities sound while still leaving space for dissonance, idiosyncrasy, and difference.

Ramsey shows how Powell’s work simultaneously is constricted by and plays off of societal structures in the same way that Powell interacted with musical structures in his own performance: at the intersection of these two realms is the moniker “genius.” With the goal of complicating these narrative conventions in jazz scholarship and literature, Ramsey deconstructs this label and its mythology as it applies to Powell in the same way that the layers of meaning around the label “jazz” have already been peeled back in earlier scholarship. Ramsey is not denying the existence of genius, but he does insist on grounding it as tied to, not transcending, its contemporary social contexts. Emulating the critical aesthetic of bebop in writerly style and content, Ramsey further accentuates and amplifies the connections between Powell’s music and the contemporary social and cultural movements of his time.

Ramsey’s monograph represents a noteworthy benchmark in jazz studies and a constructive critique to jazz literature. He illuminates overlooked but essential through-lines in Powell’s life and career while simultaneously constructing a cohesive argument among disparate topics with deft nuance and an eye (and ear) for emulating the artful aesthetics he studies in his own writing style. The Amazing Bud Powell is neither comprehensive nor definitive, but it is not intended to be. Like all exemplary scholarship, it forces us, the audience, to reconsider our assumptions and prior understanding of its subject, while providing new insight and forward-thinking methodology to practitioners in the same field. In short, Ramsey achieves through his writing the same critical and exemplary heights that Powell did through his music. This kind of resonance is particularly compelling: it highlights Ramsey’s command of his field and subject matter, while delivering a prime example of the rich potential jazz studies can achieve when carried out by a scholar/performer/educator who excels in and appreciates the interrelationship among each of these areas. Ramsey’s work on Powell encourages further reflection and invites additional research. This compelling approach translates in the classroom, as I found out when teaching the text in a seminar, and will surely inspire new scholarship on Powell and related subjects.

[1] George Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[2] Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009).

[3] Peter Pullman, Wail: The Life of Bud Powell (Peter Pullman, LLC, 2012).

[4] Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip Hop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

[5] David Ake, Jazz Cultures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

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