Interviews » Biographers

Interview with Guthrie Ramsey, author of The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

guthrieramsey

Guthrie Ramsey,
author of
The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop

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Bud Powell was not only one of the greatest bebop pianists of all time, he stands as one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and fiercely adventurous musical minds. His expansive musicianship, riveting performances, and inventive compositions expanded the bebop idiom and pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to higher standards of performance. Yet Powell remains one of American music’s most misunderstood figures, and the story of his exceptional talent is often overshadowed by his history of alcohol abuse, mental instability, and brutalization at the hands of white authorities. In this first extended study of the social significance of Powell’s place in the American musical landscape, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. shows how the pianist expanded his own artistic horizons and moved his chosen idiom into new realms. Illuminating and multi-layered, The Amazing Bud Powell centralizes Powell’s contributions as it details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness. (Description from the Publisher)

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Ramsey discusses his book with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in this September 4, 2013 interview.

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“Black male musicians of the 1940s streamed self-conscious ideas about who they were in the world through their art.  In the flatted fifths, rhythmic disjunction, and sheer velocity of bebop convention, we can find Bud and his peers.  But we also find him (and others like him) in other forms of representation, such as photography, and even in other kinds of art that shaped his social world, such as poetry and the visual arts.  In other words, we must examine the world into which Powell walked, a world in which life and musicianship challenged the post-World War II world on many levels.  When we look for Bud, we sift through many riches.”

– Guthrie Ramsey

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Bouncing with Bud (complete song on You Tube)

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JJM  Your book is subtitled, “Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop,” and focuses on all of these complex topics within the context of Bud Powell’s life and career. So, this interview will likely stretch beyond the life of Bud Powell. Why did you choose Bud Powell for this study?

GR  When I was a young musician coming up in the jazz scene in Chicago, where I grew up, many of the older musicians who saw that I was interested in jazz piano would give me a list of names I needed to know about. I definitely came up on the street playing jazz, and I learned from copying people and watching and studying. During that time, Bud Powell’s name kept coming up over and over again as a key figure that I needed to really pay attention to. Of course, you can spend your whole paycheck going to find and buy his albums and learn what was what about him, and that began my fascination with him.

Then, when I found myself in graduate school studying musicology, I discovered that I wanted to become a scholar. So, when you enter one of these high powered scholarly programs at the time that I did it, doing a jazz topic was still somewhat of a novelty, and there was this idea that you would be looked down on if you weren’t studying a European art music. Thankfully it’s not like that anymore.

JJM You wrote this book as an educator…

GR Yes. I’m a professor, so a big part of my life is to try to share with students not what to think, but how to think about things. What I try to do with this book is to offer readers a way to think about not only Bud Powell, but other artists as well.

JJM Regarding Bud Powell, you wrote, “Despite his importance to jazz, [Powell] remains one of the music’s lesser known figures.” Why is so relatively little known about Bud Powell in comparison to the likes of Monk, Dizzy and Charlie Parker?

GR  The front line players were always going to get more attention in the press at that time. If you have two virtuoso horn players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the front playing the melodies and who are taking the first solos on recordings and during live performances, it’s easy to see why the pianist, the drummer and the bass player would be not the first order of interest.

More than that, he did not leave a lot of papers about himself behind, so his file at the Institute for Jazz Studies, for instance, is very thin. He also did not lead, in my opinion, a very vibrant public life, and his career was cut short. It wasn’t like Dizzy Gillespie’s, who led this very long career that could be documented, and who left a biography behind. In addition to that, there are just a lot of musicians to cover, and we are just starting to get to many of them. We really just need jazz scholars out there willing to do the work.

JJM You wrote, “I have employed the term Afro-modernism to describe a specifically African American response to modernity, especially in the United States. Its concerns are not just aesthetic, but also social, political, and economic. Expressive practices such as music, photography, visual art, poetry, and literature both reflect and shape these domains. All these factors intersect in the world of one musician: Powell.” Can you explain that?

GR  At the time that Powell rose to prominence, there were lots of social changes afoot for African Americans, and for Americans in general. I see Powell’s career as emblematic of many of those changes.

One of the things I focused on in the book is the idea that he was one of the experimental musicians of his time. That to be a black man in the mid-’40s where people were still working on or beginning to work on civil rights for all Americans, he was focusing on what could only be thought of as a craft at the time. I employed the term Afro Modernism to take up all of the fantastic work that was going on in the arts at that time, but also social progress that we made in the political, economic and other cultural realms.

JJM  Concerning jazz manhood, you wrote, “The young black men in the bebop movement found in its aesthetic and assorted politics a patriarchal, heroic performance space, one that became the new musical language of ‘jazz manhood.” What constitutes jazz manhood?

GR When I was coming up as a musician, we would often say among ourselves that he is “the man,” which meant he is supreme on his instrument, that he has a great knowledge of jazz standards, a virtuoso technique, and possesses an original voice within all the many voices available out there, particularly on the level of style. It’s just a term of respect when we say he is a jazz “man.” I actually took that “man” part of it seriously and tried to understand how the figure of the jazz man fit into larger patriarchal structures that we know exist in the world. It was a way of positioning the art of jazz within a larger field of cultural and social meaning.

The jazz players were mostly men at that time, and they were attempting to gain for themselves many of the advantages of traditional patriarchy – which also meant they wanted to be paid handsomely for what they did, and that they wanted traditional levels of respect for what they did. They also wanted to be thought of as a success, and as someone who had obtained the American dream. Rather than take those kinds of sentiments for granted, I had to try to rebuild them for what they really were, and to talk about these things musicians were negotiating in their everyday lives.

JJM  In order for them to accomplish one of the goals of manhood, which, as you say, is to make a living, the geography of jazz had to change from Harlem to 52nd Street. How did this change alter the way their music was viewed?

GR That change of geography from Harlem to 52nd Street meant that many of the musicians would no longer be in that very specific realm of after-hours experimentation. It took them “off the beaten path” and into a space where more people would hear them because, at that time, Harlem was in a state of economic decline and people weren’t flocking to hear music there as they did during the 1920’s.

It was a blessing for these musicians to be able to break the color line and get a gig on 52nd Street. It gave them an opportunity to be “in the sun” for a while, which means they were making money. This was seen as a new thing, and it was seen as a good thing, but it was short-lived because other forms of popular music like rhythm and blues were starting to emerge. That is where the money started going, and with it the popular attention, which left the bebop musicians to just continue on this creative path of experimentation that, in fact, took them out of the mainstream of economic opportunity.

JJM Miles Davis said, “You went to 52nd to make money and be seen by the white music critics and white people.” These white audiences and especially the white critics were critiquing the music in a way that was elevating it from a popular music to an art form. One of those critics, Rudi Blesh, wrote that recognizing the jazz being played on 52nd Street jazz as an art form would ultimately lead to “an increasing awareness of the Negro’s stature and integrity as a man.” Another critic, Martin Williams, believed that jazz critics needed to take the music and the profession of jazz criticism more seriously. So, you inform your reader that there was a lot going on here other than just musicians playing in different rooms in a different part of town – the perception of the music was changing, and with it the way African American musicians and people were viewed…

GR Yes, indeed. One of the ways to increase a music like bebop’s social pedigree is to talk about it in a universal aesthetic that everyone can understand, and that transcends its social setting. Now, if you start talking about the specifics of it, as I try to do, it really shows the push and pull of all of that, revealing that there were advantages and disadvantages of this. So, there were people taking the music seriously, but one of the ways they felt like they were taking it seriously was to not discuss the social aspects of it, and to just write about it as something to be praised or criticized just on the level of style. What I’m trying to do in my book is to infuse back into those objects some of the traces of the social history that they were part of.

JJM You feel that Bud Powell was a good figure to revisit this history through, partly due to the fact he played in Cootie Williams’ band – a band that played swing and bebop as well as some rhythm and blues…

GR That’s right, because Bud Powell got his first professional break with Cootie Williams, who was absorbing a lot of styles, and Bud was bringing some bebop elements into the band as well. Cootie Williams was playing what would be called a jump blues or an early rhythm and blues style as well. It’s just great to think about how Bud was playing, how he shifted nuances in his playing to fit into all of these different styles.

JJM Concerning Powell and his being labeled “genius,” Cootie Williams said, “He was what you’d call a real genius. He was something else in his young age.” You wrote, “By the 1950s, within the communities of critics, musicians, scholars, and aficionados, Powell had earned the label ‘genius.” How does “genius” work, and how did Powell earn his “genius” title?

GR We tend to think about the label “genius” as being associated with musicians who, depending on the genre, usually have an outsized technique. They could be someone who can get around their respective instrument in very stunning and amazing and jaw dropping ways. There’s something about virtuoso playing that just makes us stand still and be silent in the face of it, where you can’t really believe your ears.

And, particularly with black musicians, it may also mean that there’s some sort of challenge to be mounted outside of the music that makes their technical feats that much more fascinating – like if somebody is blind or if they are very young when they’re demonstrating all of this technique and musicianship beyond their years. In Powell’s case, he was a social outsider and mysterious, and the more mysterious you are, and the more you have influenced other musicians when all that stuff starts stacking up against you, you get the title “genius.”

JJM According to some, his on stage persona contributed to that as well. Concerning this, you wrote, “Onstage, Powell cut an intriguing figure, a ‘highly individual stage persona,’ adopting an intense facial expression with tight lips, accompanied by ‘guttural grunting’ heard on many of his recordings because it was picked up through the piano mic: ‘He would generally sit sideways at the keyboard….His right leg would be twisted out, his foot stabbing the floor. His trouser legs had a tendency to ride up over his calves, and he would hunch his shoulders, giving a sense to the onlooker of his great physical involvement in the music.” The physical involvement he displayed on the stand, as scholar and musician David Ake reminds us, could be read by his audiences as his way to communicate a ‘sense of artistic and personal depth.”

GR That’s right.

JJM He also had an on stage persona where he would stare at people in the audience and at fellow musicians in a way that made him appear “otherworldly.”

GR Yes. He had an onstage visage that almost made one feel that he wasn’t completely there, contrasted with a music that’s issuing from his instrument as being totally present. I think that dichotomy is really part of what’s driving that “genius” title. People are trying to square what they’re hearing with what they’re seeing. There’s a kind of disruption there and it just made him a curious figure. And you’re right — it did make some people very uncomfortable.

One of the things that really struck me when I was going through what people thought about Bud Powell was when one of his colleagues, the bass player George Duvivier, said that he spent a number of years gigging with Bud Powell, but he didn’t know him, that he couldn’t tell you what he was like at all, that they just played music together. It’s very unusual to have a musician say that about somebody they have been playing with.

JJM Powell’s identity likely came out in his music…

GR I like that you said that because that’s what I believe – that much of what he was about and what he wanted us to know about him came out in his compositions, and in his music.

JJM The emergence of bebop came at a time when other art forms were emerging as well. You write, “Like jazz criticism, photographs of jazz musicians became an expressive domain that informed the ways in which bebop’s pedigree circulated in the public sphere. The diligence and artful sensibilities with which photographers began to frame jazz musicians had political as well as commercial implications.” What were the political implications found in the photos of Bud Powell?

GR At the time that bebop was emerging it began to attract not only critics, but photographers as well. They were either working for magazines or record labels, or they were working on their own, and they began to photograph these musicians. How they composed the photographs became an art form of its own, and what it ultimately did was to get people to visually respond to the music in new ways. Gone were the completely staged publicity photographs that were used for getting gigs, and the photography became a separate art form.

Coupled with that was the emerging civil rights movement, where documentary photographs were a new way of showing the humanity of African Americans to people in parts of the country where they were not geographically or spatially around black people. These images began to circulate at the same time that the music did, and it just portrayed an aura of being progressive and looking towards the future and breaking down old kind of stereotypes.

JJM  Photographs were my “gateway drug” to jazz. I love the music, but it was the art that initially got my attention. And I think the impact the photos of the era had on people like me is understated. I am a white man, now near 60 years old, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area during the civil rights movement, and the photos of jazz musicians and of those in the movement had a great deal more to do with demonstrating the humanity of black men and black musicians than we give it credit for.

GR  Yes, and in the 1960’s, television became important to this idea of social progress, because if scenes like the people being hosed down or being attacked by dogs were not filmed, people would not have necessarily believed that they took place – it was easy to dismiss that stuff as not actually happening. So, this emerging culture of documentation, combined with what the jazz photographers were doing in the 1940’s put us on the trajectory of our visual culture, and when that was combined with the music, the whole society had to follow.