Wail: The Life of Bud Powell by Peter Pullman

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Peter Pullman
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*Wail* is the exhaustive exploration of the life and times of an extraordinary musician. Pianist-composer Powell's classical training and upbringing in Harlem in the midst of its great renaissance prepared him well to emulate the solo virtuosity of Art Tatum and to become Thelonious Monk's most loyal disciple.

The biography examines all aspects of Powell's career but, more at, looks at the struggles that all modern musicians (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, among others) had, in trying to put across their ideas in a jazz world that had become stuck in its swing-band conventions.

The book situates Powell not only in the nightclub milieu, first in uptown New York City and, then, in midtown; the story also quotes dozens of musicians on the informal scene, of what went on offstage -- in the recording studios and, privately, in people's homes.

Then, as Powell's success brought with it unwelcome attention, the narrative doesn't flinch from documenting his involvement with alcohol and heroin. Further, through requests made of the police, FBI, and New York State health-department officials, Powell's life in psychiatric hospitals is detailed, the story carefully narrating his years in detention.

Powell's fortunes improved when, at the end of the Fifties, he moved to Paris. The book has the same eye for detail here, as many French musicians and fans spoke to the author of the more public, and easygoing, life that Powell led there.

Throughout, *Wail* provides the colorful anecdotes of the jazz musician's life, as based as it is on so many eyewitnesses' accounts.

But it is a fair-minded, demystifying, complete biography, one with constant reference to Powell's recording sessions and live appearances -- but also as these events took place against the larger, social milieux of New York, Paris, and the other cities where Powell performed.

A scholarly appendix examines the bizarre, punitive regulations that hampered many performers from appearing in New York nightclubs. This story unfolded uniquely in New York, against the backdrop of the evolution of the nightclub and its unique brand of entertainment.


Peter Pullman worked in the music industry throughout the Nineties. One of the projects that he shepherded to publication was a 150-page booklet, which accompanied five CDs of Bud Powell performances. The booklet canvased the opinions of a dozen musicians who had known Powell personally or who had been much influenced by him.

The project got Pullman a Grammy nomination. From that time, he sought to understand as much of Powell's life as he could. After 300 formal interviews and 500 informal ones; research in private archives, the police record, and FBI files; successful petitioning of New York state psychiatric hospitals; and a series of fact-finding trips to Europe -- this last, including visits with Powell obsessive Francis Paudras, and scouring of his archive -- finally yielded *Wail*, the culmination of a dozen years' effort.

*Wail* is Pullman's first book.


Wail: The Life of Bud Powell

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