I have no medical degree, never knew Bud Powell, I’ve never even read a Bud Powell biography. So naturally, after reading a few paragraphs on the internet and hearing some of his music, I feel fully qualified to diagnose the man. In 1945 Bud Powell was detained by police and beaten unconscious. He was hospitalized when he failed to regain consciousness and he did not wake until several days later. Back in 1945 I believe the official diagnosis would have been “and he was never the same after that.” Nowadays we’d probably call it Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Lots of the symptoms of TBI mimic symptoms of mental illness. Bud was institutionalized in 1947 and treated with further insult to his already injured brain through electroconvulsive therapy. He was in and out of institutions throughout the 50’s and between brain injuring treatments and self medicating with alcohol, his personal and professional life began a steady decline. He did experience a brief renaissance in the early 60’s when he moved to Paris. He was even invited back stateside to perform at the Birdland nightclub in 1964. The movie “Round Midnight” is based on that comeback. Bud’s debut was indeed a triumph but by the end of his brief engagement there he had already begun to fall apart again. He retired from music soon after and died in obscurity in 1966 at age 41.
Even though critics agree that the finest Bud Powell recordings are those made prior to 1947, I chose a video from 1963. The effects of his illness are pretty apparent here but this was during the European years and his playing is quite impressive. I cannot imagine what it must have taken for this man to put in this kind of performance.