- File Size: 1912 KB
- Print Length: 403 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0985141816
- Publisher: Peter Pullman, LLC; 1 edition (February 14, 2012)
- Publication Date: February 14, 2012
- Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0079NR9IC
- Text-to-Speech: Enabled
- Word Wise: Enabled
- Lending: Enabled
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #622,003 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
Wail: The Life of Bud Powell Kindle Edition
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I've been a Bud Powell fan since buying the 12-inch LP of his early Blue Note sessions when it was released in 1955. About 20 years ago I began and ultimately completed a quest to find and listen to every recording of Bud ever released, including bootlegs, as well as many private recordings that have never been made available to the public. I've read every book and article I could find about Bud, but compared to Pullman's biography everything I had read before merely scratched the surface.
Whether you are interested in plumbing the depths of the short but intense life of this musical genius, whose period of greatest brilliance lasted only a few years, or are more broadly interested in the history and development of modern jazz, this book is not to be missed. You will be a witness to the daily, and nightly, comings and goings of all the innovators of the bop era, including Bud's most important mentor Thelonious Monk and Bud's rivals for the position of the leading pioneer of modern jazz, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The love-hate relationship between Bud and Bird is especially fascinating.
Bud's successful and relatively happy years in Europe and his final tragic return to New York and Birdland in 1964 are also thoroughly explored, as is Bud's long history of mental illness compounded by severe alcoholism and to a lesser extent the drugs that played such a large role in the early development of modern jazz. Issues of race that inevitably permeated a movement dominated by blacks artistically but by whites commercially are handled with candor and sensitivity.
No book is perfect and I would quibble with Pullman's decisions, which he explains in his preface, to avoid the term African-American in favor of his own construct "afram" and his refusal on principle to include the word "the" which is customarily used before names of nightclubs and other institutions, even when people he is quoting use the article routinely in the same paragraph in which he eschews its use. I found both idiosyncratic usages to be unnecessarily distracting, but a small price to pay for the opportunity to experience what is otherwise a masterpiece of biographical and historical writing.
Powell was also the textbook definition of a tortured artist. A child prodigy at the piano, he suffered from alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness during his entire too-short life. He also was a victim of more than one act of racially motivated violence early in adulthood, and this undoubtedly contributed to his demons and his early demise.
Peter Pullman has done the work of a lifetime in researching the life of this jazz genius, and all students and fans of jazz must be deeply grateful. Over several decades he interviewed anyone living who might have been able to offer any insight at all into Powell's life. Most importantly, he successfully sued the State of New York to get the release of the records of Powell's psychiatric treatment. Pullman's biography of Powell is complete, meticulously documented, and absolutely trustworthy. It does not fall into sentimentality, yet it shows profound respect for Powell and his art.
In an appendix, Pullman carefully examines the history of the notorious "cabaret card" system in New York that kept a leash on the live-performance careers of many musicians for decades. As a fan and student of jazz, I have long heard about this or that musician having his cabaret card revoked and thus being prohibited from playing in New York clubs, but until now I have never known exactly what that meant. Pullman exposes the injustice of that now-defunct system.
Pullman's narrative of Powell's life is gripping. As I read this massive work over a couple weeks, I found that I carried resonances of Powell's struggle and pain around with me. In short, this is a book that gets inside your head and stays there.
So why did I give it four stars? Because this self-published e-book is desperately in need of an editor. Several other reviewers here have mentioned some of Pullman's writerly idiosyncrasies and have said they were slightly distracting. I'm afraid I found them quite distracting indeed.
Some of Pullman's habits are understandable and defensible. His consistent use of the terms "so-called color" and "so-called race" is effective in forcing the reader to reflect on the arbitrary nature of racial discrimination in twentieth-century America. On the other hand, Pullman seems at times to want to resolve this ambiguity by pretending that racial distinctions did not exist. To cite one of the most striking examples, nowhere does the book mention that Powell's wife, Audrey Hill, was white. This is a big deal. These distinctions loomed large in Powell's life and the lives of Americans in the 1950s.
More troubling to me is Pullman's invention of two code words to refer to Americans of European descent (i.e., white people) and of African descent (i.e., black people). At first the words "euram" and "afram" just seemed a bit silly and weird. As the book went on, though, the word "afram" gradually began to come across as a nickname. I cannot think of any racial nicknames that are not essentially problematic and eventually hurtful. It is hard to understand why the author needed to invent these two new words. Nothing would have been lost by referring to Powell and the people in his life as "black" and "white." Just about all readers in the modern world understand those two words to be shorthand for complicated ethnicities.
Finally, Pullman's fixation on avoiding the definite article "the" is just bizarre, and I cannot understand what he was trying to achieve with it. With almost total consistency, he refers to places and organizations without using the definite article, so that the Miles Davis Quintet becomes simply Miles Davis Quintet, or the Savoy Ballroom becomes just Savoy Ballroom. The record label and the New York and Paris nightclubs are referred to always as "Blue Note," not "the Blue Note" for the nightclubs and "Blue Note" for the record label. Sorry, nobody actually talks like that. The jazz standard song is called "Stomping at the Savoy," not "Stomping at Savoy." Although Pullman tries to defend his choice in his introduction, I'm just not buying it. The fact that more than one reviewer here mentions this quirk tells me that I'm not overreacting.
These stylistic misgivings aside, however, this huge book (the equivalent of something like 900 pages of print) is a must for anyone interested in the history of jazz. I do not know another jazz biography this complete. I very much appreciate Peter Pullman for the decades of toil and energy he put into this book. I now know one of my jazz heroes about as well as I might ever have hoped to.
Most recent customer reviews
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