Penn Prof Explores Black Genius Through the Lens of Jazz Great Bud Powell’s Life

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460February 19, 2014

In 1994 when Guthrie Ramsey completed his dissertation on legendary jazz pianist Bud Powell, he didn’t turn the thesis into a book manuscript right away. He waited 20 years.

Ramsey, a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has been on the lecture circuit for a few months now talking about his new book, The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History and the Challenge of Bebop.

He says he waited two decades to write it because he didn’t want to be pegged as solely a jazz scholar.

“I wanted to demonstrate my range, before burrowing in on this,” Ramsey says. “I did not believe I had the patience to write a biography of Bud Powell. This book is more a critical study of 20th century creative black manhood, using Bud Powell as its focus.”

The first chapter of Ramsey’s book introduces readers to Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell, born in Harlem in 1924, by telling the story of his sudden, tragic death. He died at age 41 from complications of tuberculosis and alcoholism.

Ramsey believes that the story of Powell’s life has been treated more sensationally than insightfully.

“There are a lot of things that we know about Bud Powell from the historical record,” Ramsey says. “I am using my training as a musicologist, a pianist, a cultural critic and [my experiences] as an African-American man to reinterpret what we think we know about Bud Powell.”

Ramsey places the facts of Powell’s career and his music within a historical, cultural and social frame to examine the contradictions of his life, how he moved from the recording studio and the stage as one of the greatest pianists of his era, to the psych ward, jail and an untimely death.

The Penn professor unpacks the lore and myth of Powell’s genius describing his ability to rise above personal demons and societal pressures that African-American men faced in the mid 20th century.

Ramsey says he believes that the number of well-known African-American musicians and artists of Powell’s era who were institutionalized points to a flawed mental health care system and skewed societal views of black men.

He cites famed jazz musicians Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus and Buddy Bolden, as well as 20th century painters William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence as African-American men who spent time in mental hospitals.

“What was so amazing to me was that, if Powell wasn’t in a mental institution, he was making very powerful music,” Ramsey says.

Ramsey, who is also the author of Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip Hop, plays piano and composes and arranges contemporary jazz, rhythm and blues and other genres of music with his ensemble, Dr. Guy’s Musiqology.  

As a young pianist playing on the South Side of Chicago, he first became interested in Bud Powell when other jazz musicians told him to listen to Powell’s records because Powell was “the man.”

Ramsey explores this idea of jazz manhood in The Amazing Bud Powell.

He says, “When we say someone is 'the man,' we talk about being a complete master of their genre." 

Ramsey is currently finishing a documentary on Powell called “Amazing: The Test and Trials of a Modernist.”  It will be released on social media. More information is at www.Musiqology.com.

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