The pianist and composer Mel Powell (1923-88) was admired by so many of his colleagues in jazz: Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Buell Neidlinger, Ruby Braff, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett . . . Before his eighteenth birthday, he had composed and arranged for the Goodman band and held his own in what might have been the best (alas, unrecorded) rhythm section imaginable: Mel, Charlie Christian, John Simmons, and Sidney Catlett).  A child prodigy, Powell was playing professionally at Nick’s, then went on to study composition with Paul Hindemith.  And his obituary in the New York Times — correctly, I think — terms him an “atonal composer.”

For the moment, I will not explore the question of why Powell “turned away” from jazz (the phrase isn’t mine) except to suggest that his imagination, from the start, was more spacious than the music he heard.  Perhaps he feared what might happen to that imagination on a steady diet of easy chord changes in 4 / 4.

This post is meant only to remind or re-introduce jazz listeners to one of the most remarkable improvisers at the piano that the music has known.

Hearing Powell, one knows, in two bars, that a quirky, searching soul — a down-home Zen master — is at the keys.  Powell’s touch is enviable; he never falters or seems mechanical at the quickest tempo.  But what remains in my ear is more than technical mastery: it is Powell’s ability to sound translucent and dense at the same time.  In some ways, his solos shimmer and tease: the first impression says, “Oh, I’m just striding away, embellishing the melody.  I love Teddy and Fats, and here’s a slimmed-down Tatum run at a fifteen-degree angle.  Nothing up my sleeve.”  But then the rest of the tapestry comes into view, and we hear new harmonies, voicings that both delight and surprise.

Here are three YouTube presentations that will repay close attention:

The first is nearly painful in the suspension of disbelief it requires — Did someone in a film studio say, “It’ll be hilarious to give Benny Goodman bad heavy makeup and a fraudulent accent and cast him as a classical musician who knows nothing of jazz — then we can have him ‘get hip’ at the end”?  But this clip offers a young Mel — in Technicolor — among his peers, jamming on STEALIN’ APPLES from the 1948 film A SONG IS BORN, with BG, Lionel Hampton — and an “audience” of Louis, Tommy Dorsey, Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo:

The only visual here is a still photograph of an even younger Mel — the soundtrack being two of his 1945 solos recorded in France: POUR MISS BLACK and DON’T BLAME ME:

And finally, a March 1957 Perry Como television show, Benny Goodman, Mel, and Roy Burnes playing Gershwin:

A few glimpses of Mel Powell, who sounds like no one else.

I will, in a few months, have much more to say about the man and his imagination — with help from someone who knew him well.

May your happiness increase.

10 responses to “GLIMPSES OF MEL POWELL

  1. Jim Adashek

    Mel Powell was a musical genius. There is a good compilation of his arrangements on the Hep CD Benny Goodman Plays Mel Powell. His Vanguard albums Borderline and Thingamagig with Bobby Donaldson, Ruby Braff and Paul Quinichette are among his best. He left jazz for the Classical world after making these albums, but his mark on jazz is indellible and unforgettable. His music is truly unique and thrilling for those who want to listen.

  2. Thanks for remembering Mel Powell, who is also one of my heroes. He was an open minded musician, “beyond categories”, as the Duke would have said. It’s astonishing that Mel Powell was only 17 when he wrote “The Earl” for Earl Hines & His Orchestra in 1941; because this is already very mature big band writing.

    As an addition, here’s a nice biography on Mel.

    Feel free to go HERE for a wonderful session with Mel Powell, meeting and recording with Django Reinhardt and the Glenn Miller All Stars in Paris, 1945.

  3. Thomas P. Hustad

    There are some unreleased recordings by Mel Powell with Ruby Braff from 1986 in Chiaroscuro’s vaults. Hopefully they may be issued some day. Upcoming is a reissue of six recordings in August on a two-cd release from Avid(UK). These are classic Vanguard albums and additional tunes from Capitol.

  4. Jim Adashek

    Michael, after reading your post last night I listened (for at least the tenth time) to Thingamajig. I would describe Mel as adventurous, dissonant and wildly creative. He is the crushed red pepper on a pizza. It’s like listening to Benny Goodman with Picasso’s ears. His classical music is 12 tone in the school of Schoenberg; it contains not a hint of jazz. Mel’s all but forgotten (most people under 40 haven’t even heard of Count Basie). Thanks for keeping his music alive.

  5. Mel is on fire on the CD release “Benny Goodman Live at Basin St. East,” recorded in 1954. BG, Charlie Shavers, Powell, Steve Jordan, Israel Crosby, Morey Feld.
    Steve Jordan wrote that it was “the best rhythm section I ever played with.” He was right, and Powell was the sparkplug!

  6. I think that’s Sid Catlett standing behind Tommy Dorsey. Some of the other faces look familiar too, but I can’t place them. Sorry, I know this isn’t about the main point of your post…

  7. John Cooper

    Perhaps Mel Powell himself did not think if himself as a “Jazz man”. Jazz was not his first love or his last. So he never “turned away” from Jazz, but turned back to what he loved most?

  8. I’m always glad to hear Sidney’s name . . . but he wasn’t in the film. Other musicians in that jam session were (I believe) Louis Bellson and Harry Babasin.

  9. What a tragic loss…I had never heard Mel Powell before, He was definitely right at the top of the list of the greats, I feel like missed a tremendous amount of wonderful listening, and loving, I am so glad some of his music was recorded and saved.

  10. One small remark. The title of Mel’s 1945 78 disk is not ‘Poor Miss Black’. It is ‘For Miss Black’.
    A french translation is ‘Pour Miss Black’. ‘Pour’ has the same sound as ‘Poor’. and some English speaking person must have the mistake.

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