Book Review: Peter Pullman. Wail – The Life of Bud Powell

Peter Pullman. Wail – The Life of Bud Powell
(Bop Changes. 2012. 476 pages; also available as an e-book. Book Review by Sebastian Scotney)

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From every page of Peter Pullman’s in-depth biography of Bud Powell, the reader gains a sense of witnessing the work of a genius at close quarters. The book is a mesmerising portrait of the elusiveness of a man who seldom had much to say for himself in words, but whose presence as a musician was unique and whose influence has been lasting and irreplaceable.

In a note inside the jacket of the book, Pullman gives the background to the book, and the briefest of impressions of quite how much hard graft has gone into it: “…In the nineties I was part of a team at Verve that produced, for issue on CD, that label’s classic LP releases. A booklet that I wrote and edited, to accompany five CDs of Powell’s music, netted me a Grammy nomination. I then looked to expand that work into a biography. The research ended up comprising thee hundred formal interviews and five hundred informal ones…”

This book, then, is the culmination of nearly two decades of painstaking work . When the going got tough, Pullman just kept going. When the New York State Office of Mental Health declined to give details of Powell’s psychiatric records from his time in mental institutions, Pullman didn’t flinch. He took a legal challenge all the way to the state’s Supreme Court to get hold of the documents, and won. He has also probed police and FBI records. And episode after episode in Powell’s career is brought to life by the accounts of eye-witnesses. We get to know “the Stare” (invariably capitalised), the “laconic fragility” of a man whom Ellington, Parker, Max Roach, and many others explicitly recognized as a genius.

Pullman doesn’t shy away from probing the complex issues around the music and the economics of it. Wherever he can, he likes to nail a question with a clear answer – he gives a particularly full account of how the New York cabaret card affected musicians in general, and Bud Powell in particular.

The people around Powell, their motivations, the mixture of hero-worship, love, solicitousness, genuine concern for him, their desire to to control him, to earn from him, to interact with him, all add up to an astonishingly rounded picture. Pullman’s restlessly questioning stance – where necessary – when interpreting their accounts, always deepens the perspective and the context. Detachment can be a good thing too. Pullman suggests that musicians seeking the inspiration they wanted and needed from him found it more comfortable at a safe remove : “His genius could be admired, and was often better appropriated, from a distance.”

The book gives lively accounts of recording sessions, accounts of how people reacted to hearing Powell play live. There are also the touching stories of what happened when Powell suddenly found himself back at the piano after a period of incarceration, and of those moments when drink or drugs took hold, and he fell apart musically. Pullman also muses thoughtfully on the might-have-been, if Powell had not been condemned to spend time in mental institutions. Powell was a huge musician, but in his unpredictability he constantly gives tragic meaning to Cocteau’s statement that “life is a horizontal fall.”

If the book had been taken under the wing of a publisher with more resources, it would have been a different but not necessarily a better book. The essence of this music is that it will find its way out, whether official channels give it permission or not; and in an analogous way, this necessary, deeply-lived book has emerged with all of the humanity it describes in both its subject and his music. A completist or a trainspotter might note the lack of a bibliography or a detailed chronology – although the latter is available on the book’s website. But that would be to miss the point, to ignore the sheer scale and richness of what actually is there. The book sometimes seems like an inexhaustible well of memories and research. One jazz writer told me that Pullman “may now have set the bar for a biography impossibly high for the rest of us.” That particular plaintive riff will surely be heard again.

The book is nominated for the Jazz Journalists Association award for Book of the Year later this month. Whether it wins or not, Pullman’s biography of Bud Powell deserves to be read, dipped into, lived with, by an audience well beyond jazz, as a vivid portrait of the man, the “artiste maudit”, the unknowable genius, in full.

WAIL can be ordered online here

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