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.