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Mel Powell

By Milton Babbitt

When Mel Powell abandoned the world of the biggest of the big bands for that of the smallest of that small band of composers whose audience is what a contemptuous New York Times journalist termed a “tiny coterie,” he was returning if not to his roots at least to his buds, for at the age of fourteen he had been a budding concert pianist whose celebrated teachers were arming him to do battle on the playing fields of contests, contestations, competitions, and then to return with the medals and glory in which they, the teachers, would be reflected. But, at the age of fifteen, Mel found a more pleasant and direct path to musical glory by taking the subway to Seventh Avenue and 10th Street where Nicks, a hallowed jazz hall, welcomed him as a relief pianist who performed alone when the resident band—of Dixieland and Chicago persuasion—sought relief. He was sequestered in the men’s room when the Musician’s Union officer visited, for Mel was under age but over-talented, so that after a year or two of playing with Muggsy and Pee Wee, there came that evening when Benny Goodman visited Nick’s and heard Mel, and simply asked him, and I quote: “Hey kid, how would you like to play with my band?” Mel answered that he would like it very much. “What’s your name kid?” asked Goodman. “Melvin Epstein” responded Mel. “That’s too Jewish,” said Goodman, “change it.” So, Melvin became Mel, and the first syllable of his mother’s polysyllabic maiden name supplied his last name, and a star was born.

As Goodman’s pianist, the virtuoso fleetness of his fingers, matched by the speed and range of his musical mind, and the scope of his musical memory created piano solos in which he clearly thought not only ahead but behind, conflating the recalled and the intimated into what were virtually fully formed compositions in themselves; as Goodman’s arranger he produced such enormous successes as The Jersey Bounce and A String of Pearls, and such an intricate original composition as Mission to Moscow. Of these works the then jazz historian Barry Ulanov wrote that “his arrangements are more suggestive of Schoenberg than of Pee Wee Russell and Jess Stacy.” The fulfillment of the implications of that observation was a few years away; a world war intervened.

Mel was a man of words as well as a man of notes; if ever a composer could speak for himself, he could, and the two extensive interviews he gave later in his life were extraordinary in their musical and extra-musical scope, their intellectual sophistication, and the originality and humor of their insights. But there were three subjects which he never allowed to be introduced into those interviews: one was his life in jazz (he would have regarded that as an argumentum ad populum), another was the crippling illness which bedeviled the last two decades of his life (which he would have viewed as an argumentum ad misericordium), and finally there was that incident during the war which was his true moment of “revelation.”

When Mel was drafted, Glenn Miller immediately chose him as the pianist for that most remarkable of big bands: Miller’s Army Air Force Band, which was stationed in England. When Paris was liberated, arrangements were made to fly the band to Paris for the celebration. Glenn Miller, as the leader and the only officer, was to fly over in a small three-seater, while the rest of the band was to fly in a large transport. It was decided that the third seat on the small plane would be occupied by Mel, since he had no instrument to carry, and Miller felt comfortable with him, for Miller was terrified of flying and sought Mel’s reassurance. But by flight time it was a heavy fog, and Miller became even more apprehensive, wondering whether Mel’s added weight (Mel was a very large man) might pose yet another hazard for the little plane. The transport landed in Paris without event; the three-seater never arrived, but disappeared, for—as never revealed publicly—the small plane flew at a low altitude under the clouds while Allied bombers returning from missions on the Continent flew higher over the clouds, and as they returned over the Channel they jetisoned their remaining bombs; at least one of those bombs landed on the small plane, and its two occupants became victims of what is described by the most distressing of oxymorons: friendly fire. Although Mel never referred to this event publicly, privately he spoke of it often, and felt that it was the experience that made his eventual change of life inevitable; the young celebrity musician apparently was obliged to face, earlier than most, mortality and the thought of a second life, on earth.

At war’s end, Mel was more than ever a jazz celebrity, with a beautiful movie-star wife (Martha Scott), and even a spoken line in a movie with Danny Kaye. But after some three years of occasional and casual relations with jazz and show business for mainly economic reasons, he was able to begin his second life, to move back Easy and enroll at the Yale University School of Music as a freshman; he studied with Paul Hindemith and received his Bachelor’s Degree at the age of 29. From that moment on he devoted himself to teaching and composing. His teaching carried him across the continent from Yale to the California Institute for the Arts, while he composed his way across and through the pluralistic compositional world of our time. From the very beginning none of these works was just facile; for all of his facility, they were personal construals of each of the successive compositional modes whose instances he heard, analyzed, but never imitated. Finally in 1959 he composed a work for string quartet whose title itself suggests a continuity underlying all of his musical creativity; it was entitled Filigree Setting, which precisely characterized the willowy polyphony of his pianism as well as the intricate orchestral polyphony of his most extended work, his Duplicates for two pianos and orchestra some twenty years later. It was of that Filligree Setting that Hindemith said to Mel: “Aha you have gone to the other side!” (as if there were only two sides) but, indeed, the Filigree Setting was one of the earliest of Mel’s compositions in which his realization of the scope of singularities within the communal, shared syntax carried his imagination far beyond where it ever had traveled before.

When Mel still had the full use of his arms, hands, and fingers he(as he put it) “got into shape,” and participated in two summers of jazz cruises. This activity so reassured him that he composed his two-piano concerto on the assumption that he would play one of the pianos, but by the time of the performance he was no longer able to play, but the piano writing in the concerto contains details which unmistakably recall the delicate counterpoint of the public Mel Powell. And the earlier Mel is recalled in the most subtle of ways, in those many of his later works in which he wrote for the soprano voice, unmistakably reflecting his life with those sopranos known affectionately as “girl singers,” those remarkable band vocalists and Hollywood singers who so well understood in their own singular ways the relation of the rhythms and sounds of words to the rhythms and sounds of music, of the timbres of voice and words to the timbre of musical instruments. Mel invoked all of these awarenesses in his setting of the most sophisticated verse, as in his Strand Settings: Darker, for soprano and tape.

Mel always knew what he was doing and why he was doing it; he understood the milieu in which he found himself, or in which his music had placed him. He stood considerably more than six feet tall in his stocking feet and he said: “Serious new music is precisely what it appears to be today, that is, a private act. The fourteen or so devotees who faithfully show up know who we are and what we do.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 10, 1999.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters