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on 25 November 2008
Most jazz musicians have unsatisfactory biographies. Bud Powell is no exception. This book is not actually bad; it was probably a labour of love for the authors, seeing as how Bud Powell is still a largely under-appreciated musician. A towering pianist and gifted composer, the peer in every respect of musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, he suffered from drug, alcohol and psychological problems and his recorded legacy is tragically inconsistent, with the bulk of his greatest work being made early in his career and his later decline being all too audible on record.

Groves and Shipton have done research, and the book is written in a good, plain, unpretentious style. It tells the story of Powell's troubled career in a clean and economical manner and it does a good job of supporting Powell's reputation as one of the central figures in modern jazz. The trouble is that it's just not long or detailed enough.

A musician of Powell's stature deserves a proper critical biography, preferably containing some musical examples. There are a lot of anecdotes about Powell and most of them are in here, but anyone who loves jazz must want more detail about what was distinctive and impressive (or otherwise) about Powell's music. His life was sad and almost relentlessly downbeat, but his music at its best could be exhilaratingly powerful and lively; someone really needs to try and work out what Powell was doing, how he might have done it and what it means to us. At the moment, the best way into Powell's music is by learning to play it, but that's beyond the reach of most people.

The last period of Powell's life has been lovingly documented in Francis Paudras' memoir "Dance of the Infidels" but that book is about the winter of his career, when his playing was not at its peak. It is one of the saddest books I've ever read, but like this book it has very little to say about Powell's music. If Stanley Crouch ever gets his finger out and finishes the Charlie Parker biog he is supposed to be working on, we might finally have a model critical biography of a modern jazz musician that realises that the music is ultimately more important than the anecdotes, and it might help to spur someone to do the same thing for Powell. In the meantime, this well-written and disciplined book is the best we have.
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