Earl “Bud” Powell was undisputedly one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, if not the best according to Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and the author of “Dance of the Infidels,” Francis Paudras.
Monsieur Paudras, French by birth, idolized Bud throughout his formative jazz piano training. After learning of Bud’s European tour in 1959, Paudras had his chance to see Bud and when the night came, he went AWOL from military service to watch Bud. Nobody can doubt his musical dedication. After more shows, Paudras dared approaching Bud after his set, bought him a beer, and continued meeting in this fashion until the two formed a true, formidable friendship. Eventually becoming Bud’s best friend in Paris, Paudras lent him a spiritual helping hand through the many hardships of Bud’s life, providing him with much needed compassion and respect.
Bud’s hardships would be too long to list, but the genesis of many began when Bud was 20 years old. One night in New York after a set with his “spiritual brother” Thelonious Monk, two officers arrived and started harassing Monk. Bud intervened when the situation escalated, was struck on the head by the officer causing a major concussion and taken to the police station without being treated. He suffered from constant migraines, so was sent to a hospital where he received medical care in the form of experimental drugs and electroshock treatment. After two years it resulted in a mentally handicapped man declared incompetent by the state.
Home life afterwards didn’t help. He was stuck in a drug induced prison by an overbearing witch: the drug, Largactyl, which was for schizophrenic patients when Bud actually had something like an epileptic disorder akin to Dostoevsky; produced impotence, numbness, suggestibility, memory loss, submissiveness, and indifference. The witch, too offensive to even name in my opinion, kept Bud in this state for years until Paudras broke the spell and rescued him. For the next six years, Paudras acted as official caretaker of Bud and got him on as clean a path as possible; this is where his narrative draws itself.
Upon reading the adventures of Bud and Paudras, the material clearly becomes more first-person memoir than third-person objective accounting, hagiography more than biography. The Paudras bias is pronounced throughout the book with exaltations of Bud’s genius, attacking any small criticism, good or bad, that was told about Bud during his life, especially in the jazz magazines. Bud’s genius can be heard without being forced. For sake of brevity in reducing redundancy, Paudras could have shaved a considerable amount of text glorifying Bud, clumsily name-dropping, etc., and still making the story coherent and all-encompassing. Perhaps a co-writer would have helped in this regard. More information, research, and analysis would have been appreciated about Bud’s time not with Paudras; we only learn of a handful of stories from Bud’s youth, which could have received much more attention for sake of rounding out Bud’s life story. Lastly, Paudras detailed many superfluous events of his own life unrelated to Bud that was uninteresting.
Notwithstanding all that criticism, Paudras is able to flesh out a Bud Powell that we can easily imagine, hear, play piano, or sit in silence and contemplate his complicated position in life. We feel Bud, feel for his situation, and that is the best a narrative can accomplish.
“Dance Of The Infidels: A Portrait Of Bud Powell” by Francis Paudras, published in 1998 by Da Capo Press.