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Thread: The Mel Powell thread

  1. #1
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso Dorsetmike's Avatar
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    Dec 2008
    Poole Dorset UK

    The Mel Powell thread

    Mel Powell, pianist, composer, professor of composition. (Precis from sleeve notes)

    Born Melvin Epstein, 12 February 1923 in the Bronx, New York City.
    Began studying piano at the age of 4 taught by Sara Barg and Nadia Reisenberg; a prodigy, he was expected to become a concert pianist, that is until his younger brother dragged hime to the Paramount theatre on Broadway in 1937 to see and hear Benny Goodman and his band; Teddy Wilson on piano made a considerable impression, such that jazz improvisations started to creep into the classics.

    He got a job at age 14 as an intermission piano player at a Greenwich Village club frequented by Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett and others, he became the protegée of Willie "the Lion" Smith, Art Tatum heard him there and predicted he would do well. For a time he played in Myuggsy Spaniers band.

    In !941 at age 18, George Simon of Metronome magazine recommended him as a replacement piano player to a famous band leader, after an afternoon audition, he sat in with the band at Madison Square Gardens he had joined Benny Goodman's orchestra.

    He began composing and arranging for Benny, composing songs such as The Earl, Mission to Moscow and Clarinade, and his arrangement of Jersey Bounce. When Helen Forrest left Goodman Powell helped the "new girl", Norma Egstrom, with run throughs of HFs numbers, she soon became established with Goodman, better known now as Peggy Lee.

    He left Goodman late summer of '42, worked for the CBS orchestra then was drafted in April '43 and found himself with another big name, Glen Miller's Army Air Force band, he played and arranged for the duration of the war also leading a jazz septet formed within the band. In addition he also wrote some "serious" music as there were a number of fine string players in the Miller orchestra.

    In 1945 he was named in the Downbeat poll as the top jazz pianist. He Married actress Martha Scott and resumed playing with Goodman for a time then joined friends André Previn and Lenny Hayton scoring films and playing piano for MGM, appearing as himself in the Danny Kaye film "A Song is Born"

    In 1948 he returned east and enrolled in Yale under the GI bill. He studied Composition under Paul Hindemith and took his masters degree in 1952. He began teaching at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan and Queen's College of NYU. At this time he still played and recorded with Goodman and recorded some of the Vanguard Jazz Showcase Series.

    HE left the Jazz world in 1957 amd joined Yale university as chairman of the Composition Department, replacing his teacher Paul Hindemith who was returning to Europe. He remained at Yale until 1969 when, at the recommendation of Aaron Copeland he accepted the role of creating the music school at the California Institute of Arts, serving as founding dean of Music, Provost and Professor of Composition, remaining there for almost 30 years.

    In the late 1980s he had the onset of a neuromuscular disorder which stopped his playing but not composing, saying Hindemith taught me to compose with my head not my hands!. He died of liver cancer in 1998.

    The Vanguard recordings: Mel Powell featured on 5 of the Jazz Showcase series produced by John Hammond

    Mel Powell Septet, 1953, Mel Powell piano, Edmund Hall, clarinet, Buck Clayton Trumpet, Henderson Chambers Trombone, Steve Jordan Guitar, Walter Page bass, Jimmy Crawford Drums

    Borderline 1954 (my favourite) Mell Powell piano, Paul Quinichette ("Vice Pres") Tenor Sax, Bobby Donaldson drums. (includes an 8m 46sec version of "What's New")

    Thigamagig 1955, Mel Powell piano, Ruby Braff trumpet, Bobby Donaldson drums.

    The Mel Powell Bandstand 1956, Mel Powell piano, John Glasel trumpet, Jimmy buffington french horn(!), Mundell Lowe guitar, Joe Kay bass, Chuck Russo clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and baritone sax, Eddie Phyfe drums, Joan Wylie vocals.

    Out on a Limb, 1956, Quintet, Mel Powell piano, Ruby Braff trumpet, Skeeter Best guitar, Oscar Pettiford bass, Bobby Donaldson drums
    Septet, Mel Powell piano, Al Mattaliano trumpet, Peanuts Hucko clarinet, Nick Caiazza tenor sax, Tommy Kay guitar, Arnold Fishkin bass, Bobby Donaldson drums.

    These have been compiled onto 2 CDs, "It's been so long" and "The best things in life" both issued 1999 by Vanguard records. Both are available on, possibly on Spotify for those who can get streaming from them. (free in UK, USA and Germany as far as I know)
    Cheers MIKE.

    How many roads must a man walk down ... ... before he admits he's lost?

  2. #2
    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
    Nu Zeln
    Good thread Mike, Bl>>>y spotify, can't get in NZ
    I don’t want a signature any more

  3. #3
    Duckmeister teddy's Avatar
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    Apr 2010
    Another informative and entertaining thread. Well done Mike.

    JT John???


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