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

October 22nd, 2013

JJM  You wrote, “Even as the troubled Powell languished in and out of confinements, jazz criticism was steadily extending its role as a global community theater animated by, among many other notions, two important ideals: that jazz was the perfect place to understand the long history of race relations and ‘raced’ expressions, and that because of American racism, Europe was better suited to provide black American musicians with the proper support structures for their art. Each of these beliefs would impact Powell’s life and music.” Is jazz still, as you wrote, “The perfect place to understand the long history of race relations?”

GR I think it’s one of the perfect places, yes, but I also should say that any form of music or art can be an index to understand larger issues in our society. I made the claim about jazz being the “perfect place” because my book is a book about jazz, but you could make the same argument about rock and roll music.

JJM Like so many other artists, writers and musicians, Bud Powell spent time in Paris. What were the conditions that made Paris so attractive to him?

GR It had a lot do with the fact that there were different attitudes about the importance of music in society, and France had a history of serious jazz criticism that made it easier for musicians to be understood as serious artists. While critics like Martin Williams and LeRoi Jones were arguing in the 1950’s for the need for more serious jazz criticism, both in the music’s formal structures and its social relations, that had already been established in France in the 1930’s.

Another thing is that you can’t help but tie the singular reception of jazz in France to the whole sensitization of things “black” in French culture. There was this idea that they believed there was something very fundamental in the art of African and African-American cultures – whether it be an African mask or a jazz recording.

So, I think those kinds of things made moving to Paris appealing t Powell. Not only that, he had a super fan there. Francis Paudras was entirely devoted to his art, and one might even call him a patron, although I don’t think anybody has described him that way. Certainly black artists like Langston Hughes and Thelonious Monk had a patron, and these people would look out for them financially – and given Bud Powell’s challenges, he really needed someone to look out for him because he could not be left to his own devices to do that himself.

JJM Powell was in Paris from 1959 to 1964, and when he returned to the United States he attempted to make a comeback that included some stunning performances, but overall his return was judged to be uneven and disappointing…

GR That’s right. He was a classically trained prodigy who was incredibly musically prepared to step into the role that he did. But, to see where he started from and end up where did left many people very disappointed. If we think of a modern day analogy, it would be someone like Whitney Houston, who burst onto the scene as a very young, dynamic and charismatic performer, but after going through challenges and attempting a comeback, it was clear her instrument wasn’t the same as it was when she was younger. I think we want all of our performers like that to be sort of like Gladys Knight, who sounds just as good, if not better, than she did when she emerged on the scene.

One of the things that I get out of reading the contemporary accounts is that people were actually heartbroken to see what had become of Bud Powell. I don’t think people wanted to see a train wreck – they were pulling for him and had high hopes that someone who had participated in one of the great American musical revolutions was still alive. But, he couldn’t live up to that previous standard.

JJM  What is an important contribution he made to the history of bebop music?

GR One would be that he was a leader in thinking about the modern jazz piano trio as being a viable platform for a pianist. Today when we see Robert Glasper or Jason Moran or Brad Mehldau playing with a bass player and a drummer and play the entire night in a post bebop style, I think that Bud Powell was instrumental in setting that up as a paradigm. Also, the general concept of how he played the piano with the left hand lightly supplying the harmonic structures of the song and the right hand playing these incredibly spun out melodies is what many, if not most, of all the jazz pianists playing today are using as a model.




“Powell’s early recordings show a crucial stage in bebop’s development, offering a snapshot of the revolution from the vantage point of a single musician.  His career took the familiar pattern of many other before and after him”  ‘a stage of apprenticeship and learning is clear, a time of growth and development follows, and a period of mature artistic creation at the highest level is attained.’  These recordings document the remarkable speeds with which Powell moved toward the realization of his mature style.  And, most important, in them we experience his own highly personalized synthesis of bebop convention, his own style: a blistering palimpsest consisting of Tin Pan Alley structure overlaid with virtusos melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic intensities.  It became a new language, and, indeed, one of the most influential styles in jazz history.”


– Guthrie Ramsey


Bud Powell plays “Get Happy”

About Guthrie Ramsey


Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the prize-winning Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (UC Press).


JJM Who was your childhood hero?

GR I have a quick answer, and I think it’s really the truth. Music was my hero.


If you liked this interview, you may want to read our conversation with Robin D.G. Kelley

, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original


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