Bud Powell on "'Round Midnight"

For my final project in the Bud/Bird class I took this semester, I decided to transcribe Bud's astonishing chorus on 'Round Midnight from One Night in Birdland (1950). 

Ethan Iverson has already extensively discussed performances from this recording and Bud in general in his Bud Powell Anthology. As he asserts with italics:
The piano chorus on "'Round Midnight" is the best this song has ever been played except by the composer.
A pretty weighty pronouncement, but I'd like to hear any contentions if the well-listened readers have them. Also, one caveat: consider the end-of-semester context of this assignment and forgive me for hasty mistakes etc. here. I've appended an "analysis" at the end of the transcription, but a lot of this was written last minute; the real stuff, as always, is on the record.
Bud Powell "'Round Midnight" Solo Transcription - 1

Bud Powell "'Round Midnight" Solo Transcription - 2

Bud Powell "'Round Midnight" Solo Transcription - 3


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“‘Round Midnight,” recorded live at Birdland, NYC, May 15-16-17th, 1950 (exact date disputed), featuring Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Fats Navarro (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Curly Russell (bass), and Art Blakey (drums).

            A Brief Historical Sketch
            Bud Powell met Thelonious Monk in 1942 when Powell was only 17 years old[1]. They were fellow Harlemites, and Monk quickly took Powell under his wing. As Monk recalls, Powell was undoubtedly talented but hadn’t yet refined his raw potential into what would later make him famous: “When I met him, he did not know much on the piano. He had a very distinct style, but he didn’t know much about harmony. I had to teach him about it.”[2]
            The year after the pianists met, Monk completed a ballad that he’d been working on for about a year. He tentatively titled it “I Need You So,” based on lyrics written by a neighbor, Thelma Elizabeth Murray, which would later be known as “‘Round Midnight.”[3] Powell, not Monk, however, would be the first to record the composition; Powell played piano on the 1944 recording of the piece with trumpeter Cootie Williams, and Monk wouldn’t record it until three years later on his début release, Genius of Modern Music (Blue Note).
            By the time Powell was recorded playing “‘Round Midnight” with Charlie Parker at Birdland in 1950, he’d been familiar with the composition and the music of his mentor for nearly a decade. The band on the live recording is one of the high watermarks of the bebop era, as well as a representative example of what pianist Ethan Iverson calls “High Bebop.”
            To wit:
            Bebop uses an ornamented, accented eighth-note line to thread chord changes. The
            more discontinuous the line the better, although that line must retain folkloric

            The performances of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell have the maximum amount of
            folklore and the greatest level of discontinuity.  After you really learn what Bud and Bird
            played, almost all other bebop players seem a little obvious or easy.  They are an elect of
            two that I call High Bebop.[4]

            Powell, 25 at the time, is the youngest member of the band; bassist Curly Russell is the oldest at age 33. Less than two months after this date, trumpeter Fats Navarro would be dead at age 26 from complications resulting from tuberculosis and heroin use. The youthful energy on the recording is unmistakable, and there is the sense that no other group of musicians would play quite like this ever again. Iverson also suggests that musical rivalries are audible on this recording:

            On One Night Bird sounds disgusted with Bud. He plays atonal phrases over Bud on
            “The Street Beat” and “‘Round Midnight.”  The pièce de résistance is the cutting off of
            Bud’s sensational intro on “Ornithology.”  Bud is just too powerful and interesting, so
            Bird brings in the tune in the wrong place.[5]

            Bud Powell takes one solo chorus on “‘Round Midnight,” and it is extraordinary, filled with rhapsodic melodic ideas, supremely expressive microrhythms, and impeccable voice leading.

etc. etc. etc. [two other short thoughts I thought worth sharing from the rest of the paper:]

The truly extraordinary component of this solo, aside from the arresting melodic ideas and overall swagger of the performance, lies in the way that Powell expressively stretches, compresses, bends, flattens, and straightens the time conveyed by his lines. Notation is remarkably limited for conveying this parameter of expression, but among the most memorable lines that appear to defy “the grid” or basic rhythmic substructure of 4/4 [ed note: "substructure" was a favorite term of the course. I wonder what the politics of this term would be for rhythm and harmony in jazz] include the following:

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Powell’s performance is his sheer fluency with the language, contested only by Bird. Phrases like these are effortless but not at all glib, and the overall impact is to remind us, looking and listening back over half a century, that the original beboppers were on to something, which nobody has since been able to recreate convincingly.


[1] Kelley, Robin D. G. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. New York: Free, 2009. 79.
[2] ibid. 81.
[3] Ibid. 88.
[4] Iverson, Ethan. ""High Bebop"" Do The Math. N.p., 25 Sept. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
[5] Ibid.