Dance of the Infidels
by Francis Paudras
Da Capo Press (New York, 1998)
We should all have a friend like Francis Paudras, who nursed the great pianist Bud Powell back to health after rescuing him from an abusive caretaker. This story, presented in loose fashion some years ago in the movie "Round Midnight", is the subject of Paudras' book, published in translation here for the first time, twelve years after its original French publication. Paudras, whose own life ended tragically through suicide in the past year, was completely devoted to Powell, who exemplified artistic brilliance and vulnerability.
Apart from Kenny Clarke, the drummer who appears in all accounts of the origins of bebop, Powell is the least well known to the general public of the master inventors of this music, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Yet he has been as great an influence as them, having forged the modern jazz piano style in its range of emotional expressiveness. This lack of public reputation is largely due to Powell's personal problems and lengthy absences from the jazz scene. Just how severe these problems were, and how they slowly if temporarily lost their influence on Powell's life, is a major theme of Paudras' memoir, as is Powell's as an artist.
Paudras' story seems completely authentic to me. By his account he gained the trust not only of Powell but also of Powell's musical and personal associates, who gave him details which I've not seen in print before. An example is the opening chapter of the book, which presents the crucial incident of Powell's life, the head injury he sustained at the hands of Philadelphia police. The remainder of the book is largely autobiographical. Paudras describes his own boyhood, in which music relieved him of the anxieties provoked by the German occupation of France and his father's Resistance activities. Taught to play piano, he was introduced to jazz by his teacher's son and became a life-long fan, particularly of the music of Bud Powell. Paudras attended all of Powell's French performances that he could, listening at the windows of the Parisian basement jazz club, the Blue Note, when he could no longer afford an admission. It was thus that Powell made his acquaintance, emerging between sets in search of a drink.
Gradually brought into Powell's life, he observed with horror the way the pianist's keeper, Buttercup, abused him. Falsely claiming to be Powell's wife, she kept him heavily drugged on tranquilizers, and took his pants away during the day to keep him in the apartment they shared. She addressed him in tones and words of contempt. She took all of his earnings for herself and her pre-teen son. Paudras eventually moved Powell to a hotel next to his own apartment, creating a far more beneficial environment in which the pianist quit the drug regimen, stopped drinking alcohol, and recovered a cheerfulness which surprised and delighted his visiting musician friends. Paudras never took any cash from Powell for these arrangements. Similarly, when Powell nearly died of a severe undiagnosed tuberculosis infection, Paudras took him to the doctor and paid for his lengthy hospitalization. Paudras, a free-lance commercial artist, and his wife, Nicole, put their savings into soundproofing a larger apartment so Powell could live with them, and their piano could be used at any time of the night without drawing the neighbors' ire.
This was a happy time. Powell often played Paudras' piano, even gradually recollected pieces from his former classical repertoire. Francis, Nicole and their friends had many pleasant evenings with Powell. They would drive to the country for relaxation and fresh air. Some of Powell's old friends would visit, taking pleasure in the picture of health which he presented. His music was vital and alive. Indeed, Paudras makes a case for the beauty of Powell's later work which got me listening to it with renewed interest.
An extraordinarily vivid portrait of Bud Powell emerges through this narrative, of a man of brilliance reduced by injury, maltreatment and alcoholism to an abject degree, and yet retaining his phenomenal musicality and a capacity for intimate friendship. The many intimate or historical photographs enhance this picture, as do the cameo appearances of quite a few jazz players, including among others Johnny Griffin, Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Ornette Coleman, who provided his home for Paudras and Powell in New York. As a long-time admirer of the great pianist, I was pulled into the heated atmosphere of Paudras' recollections, which take on a tragic hue when they travel to New York for what was to have been Powell's triumphant but temporary homecoming. Ultimately the informal guardianship which Paudras had performed so well was taken over less successfully by Powell's old girlfriend and their daughter Celia, then in high school. Powell died less than two years after Paudras' return to Paris.