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Jazz Mission: Mel Powell In The 1940s

Pianist and composer/arranger Mel Powell (in uniform as a member of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force orchestra in the latter years of World War II).

Mel Powell was still a teenager when he joined one of America’s most popular big bands on the cusp of World War II, launching a brief but notable jazz career as a pianist, composer and arranger, before going on to devote most of his life to classical music. On this edition of Night Lights we’ll hear him as a sideman with Benny Goodman and in Glenn Miller’s wartime military orchestra, playing in liberated France with Django Reinhardt, and as a leader on numerous dates he made throughout his most active decade on the jazz scene.  

Two recordings from pianist Mel Powell to open the show… we heard his 1945 solo performance of his tune “For Miss Blanc,” recorded in France while Powell was serving as part of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force orchestra.  Powell before that two years later in December of 1947 performing his arrangement of “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans,” at one of his last jazz recording dates in the 1940s; a musicians’ union recording ban in 1948 and Powell’s eventual move into the classical academic world would subsequently mark the start of his general departure from the jazz scene.

(A 1943 Powell solo piano recording of Hoagy Carmichael's "Jubilee")

Mel Powell may be one of the most under-celebrated artists of 20th century American music.  He was a piano prodigy who played and wrote for big bands led by two titans of the swing era, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller; a jazz musician who packed a wealth of notable recordings into a handful of years; and a composer of classical, or formal music, as he preferred to call it, whose efforts in the latter category eventually led to a Pulitzer Prize in 1990.  Powell’s achievements in the field of composition also shouldn’t overshadow his formidable prowess as a jazz pianist.  Jazz writer Whitney Balliett described his style as drawing on “Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Jess Stacy, and Billy Kyle, all descendants of Earl Hines. Powell was never a copyist; he celebrated his idols with little exuberances… then went his inimitable way. His touch was oblique and dancing. Powell’s fast solos steamed. His single-note lines, decorated with little tremolos, flashed. His chords jumped three steps at a time. His accented notes, sounding every three or four measures, pressed the momentum. His slow solos were delicate and exploratory… He had a superb sense of dynamics. His climactic chords were delivered in shouts, his runs in whispers, his single-note figures as conversation.”

Powell was born in 1923 and grew up in New York City’s Bronx borough. He took up piano and classical studies as a very young child, but at the age of 13 discovered jazz after his brother Lloyd took him to see Benny Goodman’s big band at the Paramount. Many years later Powell wrote that

the stage began slowly to rise from darkness and soon turned into a celestial proscenium as spotlights started to glow--a singularly radiant vision brimming with the sparkle of big luminous cymbals and golden bells of horns--and suddenly there came forth a sound that in sheer vitality and splendor, in its stunning, ecstatic roaring, exceeded all previously known sonic delights by so immeasurably a margin that ... but then, who can describe it? That was the first time I saw and heard Benny Goodman.

Powell made his way onto the Greenwich Village jazz scene as a teenager, hanging out and playing with legendary jazz musicians such as Willie the Lion Smith and Sidney Bechet.  At age 15 he once had to follow jazz giant Art Tatum on piano at a jam session; afterwards Tatum came up to him, asked his age, and then said, “You’re going to be one of the real ones.”  Powell was playing in the house band at Eddie Condon’s club Nick’s when the young jazz writer and musician George Simon introduced him to Benny Goodman, who was in search of a new pianist.  At the age of 18 Mel Powell suddenly found himself in one of America’ s most popular big bands, not just playing piano, but also beginning to compose and arrange for Benny Goodman’s orchestra as well.  Let’s hear two of his most celebrated works for the Goodman big band, beginning with a tribute to Earl Hines:  


Benny Goodman’s big band in 1942 performing pianist Mel Powell’s “Mission to Moscow,” and in 1941 before that doing “The Earl,” Powell’s tribute to fellow pianist Earl Hines.

It’s a sign of Benny Goodman’s respect for his young pianist that he agreed to be a sideman on Mel Powell’s first leader date, made for the Commodore label in 1942.  To get around contractual conflicts, Goodman was identified on the session as “Shoeless John Jackson,” an allusion to baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose career had ended 20 years prior as a result of his involvement in the so-called Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. It’s highly doubtful that anybody was fooled by the pseudonym, particularly since Goodman turned in such an inspired performance on the piece we’re about to hear.  We’ll also hear a solo piano performance by Powell that went unissued for more than 40 years; first, Mel Powell, Benny Goodman, and “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise,” on Night Lights:

Pianist Mel Powell with a solo performance of “When a Woman Loves a Man,” recorded for the Commodore label in 1943, but unissued for more than 40 years.  Powell before that with “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” featuring Benny Goodman on clarinet, recorded for Commodore in 1942 at Powell’s first recording date as a leader.

By 1942 America was suddenly and fully immersed in the Second World War, and Mel Powell, who’d recently turned 19, was eventually drafted into the armed forces. As a sign of how much respect he’d already earned in the jazz world, he was given a sendoff party at New York City’s Café Society nightclub by bandleaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and pianists Teddy Wilson and Hazel Scott.  Forty years later Powell told Loren Schoenberg that his military experiences were not among his “happiest memories,” but his enormous talent as a musician did manage to provide for an escape from the role of a rank-and-file soldier, with Glenn Miller, now a major in the armed forces, tapping him for the piano seat in Miller’s emerging gargantuan jazz ensemble, which would come to be known as the Army Air Force band, and which would travel to England and then on to the European continent in 1944 and 1945.  Utilizing 60 musicians in all, Miller could present several configurations for an audience’s pleasure, including a big band, an orchestra with strings, an intimate combo with a singer, and a modern-jazz group led by Powell known as the Uptown Hall Gang, or the Swing Sextet. We’ll hear Powell in two very different settings here—with the full AAF orchestra performing his composition “Pearls on Velvet,” which he wrote for the band at Miller’s request, and leading the Uptown Hall Gang in a broadcast performance of “What Is This Thing Called Love."  Mel Powell with Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force orchestra, on Night Lights:

Pianist Mel Powell with the Uptown Hall Gang, the small group that Powell led within Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force orchestra, performing “What Is This Thing Called Love" in England in 1944. The Army Air Force orchestra before that doing Powell’s composition “Pearls on Velvet.”

Powell remained with the Army Air Force orchestra throughout the first half of 1945, and he and several other band members found extra work recording at a Paris club while it was vacant during daylight hours.  Powell had already taken advantage of Paris during his first trip to the city after its liberation by examining the original music manuscripts of composers such as Claude Debussy at France’s national library.  In May of 1945 he and some of his American colleagues crossed paths with the celebrated guitarist Django Reinhardt, and we'll hear one of the recorded results.  We’ll also hear a lovely solo performance of the song "Don't Blame Me" that Powell recorded in Paris around the same time… first Mel Powell, Django Reinhardt, and “Beatin’  The Hallelujah Drum,” on Night Lights:

Mel Powell with a solo piano performance of “Don’t Blame Me,” recorded in Paris in May 1945.  Powell before that in Paris in January 1945 with a group that included the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt as well as saxophonist Peanuts Hucko, trumpeter Bernie Privin, bassist Joe Shulman, and drummer Ray McKinley, performing “Beatin’  the Hallelujah Drum.”

("My Guy's Come Back," a popular tune that Powell wrote during his time with Glenn Miller's Army Air Force orchestra)

Powell returned from his military service to America in 1945, recently crowned as best pianist in a DownBeat Magazine poll.  But even though his Uptown Hall group had done one of the earliest versions of what would become a bebop anthem, “Night In Tunisia,” he was generally unacquainted with the revolutionary new music that artists such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had developed during the waning years of the war.  Jazz writer and promoter Leonard Feather took him to a 52nd Street club to hip him to the new sounds, and Powell came away impressed. He also ended up playing frequently with his old boss Benny Goodman, most often in a small group setting, and we’ll hear two recordings in that context now—one from 1947 that reflects Powell’s absorption of mid-1940s modernistic jazz, preceded by this 1945 broadcast, on Night Lights:

Benny Goodman in 1947 performing Mel Powell’s composition “Shirley Steps Out,” with Powell on piano, Red Norvo on vibes, Al Hendrickson on guitar, Artie Shapiro on bass, and Tom Romersa on drums. Goodman and Powell before that with drummer Bob Sheble doing “Liza” on a December 1945 radio broadcast.

Powell landed in Hollywood for a while in the mid-1940s, working as a staff composer for the MGM studio.  He also married the actress Martha Scott, who had been nominated for an Oscar in 1940 for her performance as Emily in the film adaptation of Our Town.  In the meantime he made one of his final recordings for the Commodore label, which gives us a chance to hear Powell leading his own assembled big band in one of his most standout recordings as a jazz artist.  Jazz writer Dan Morgenstern calls Powell’s treatment of “Lover Man” “quite unlike anything heard before in jazz, though it bears a certain kinship with some of Paul Jordan’s earlier and Gil Evans’ later writing—and with the modern classical sources Mel already was familiar with.” Jazz musician and historian Allen Lowe describes “Lover Man” as “a little bit too outside for ‘jazz ears’ at the time, too user unfriendly in its daring violation of basic tonalities.”  Morgenstern and Lowe’s observations align with Powell’s own later reflections that he was becoming more interested in formal composition around this time and less enthusiastic about continuing his musical efforts in a jazz setting.  Mel Powell and “Lover Man,” on Night Lights:

Pianist Mel Powell performing his large-ensemble arrangement of “Lover Man,” recorded for the Commodore label in 1946.

Powell remained active in the jazz world till the end of the 1940s, but he was becoming more interested in pursuing classical composition, and eventually he began to study at Yale with the renowned composer Paul Hindemith.  In the mid-1950s he had a renewed burst of jazz activity, working with Benny Goodman again and recording several albums for the Vanguard label that showed him continuing to grow as a jazz artist.  That stretch proved to be an outlier, as Powell ultimately succeeded Hindemith as head of compositional faculty at Yale and went on to help found the music program at the California Institute for the Arts. Decades later he told writer Whitney Balliett that his jazz work ceased because “I had done what I felt I had to do in jazz. I had decided it did not hold the deepest interest for me musically.” But Powell’s love for the music endured, shining through in the interviews that he gave to Balliett and Loren Schoenberg in the 1980s (the latter is linked to at the end of this post), and in 1987 he was coaxed into recording a new jazz album with some of his contemporaries, subsequently titled The Return of Mel Powell.  In 1990 he won a Pulitzer Prize in music for his work Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Powell died in 1998 at the age of 75, leaving behind a legacy as one of the few American musicians of the 20th century to enjoy high-profile success as both a jazz artist and a classical composer. I’ll close with two recordings that he made for the Capitol label in the late 1940s as the opening jazz chapter of his career was about to come to a close:



*A remarkable in-depth interview that jazz artist and scholar Loren Schoenberg conducted with Mel Powell in 1983: 

*Dig into this excellent Mel Powell discography with commentary

*Previously on Night Lights: Glenn Miller Goes To War With The Army Air Force Band

*Mel Powell appreciations from Ethan Iverson and JazzLives (also check out Whitney Balliett's interview and article in his book Barney, Bradley and Max: 16 Portraits In Jazz)

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