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The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.

In his introduction to The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop, Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. states that it is not his intention to present “an exhaustive biography” of the immortal pianist-composer, but rather “[to put] what we know about Powell’s life and music in dialogue with ideas that made possible, among other things, his reputation as a musical ‘genius’ and bebop’s social identity as a singular art form.” Ramsey adds that “Powell’s expansive musicianship, riveting improvisations, and inventive compositions … can be best understood within the broad social, musical, historical, and especially marketing frameworks in which listeners experienced and understood.”

Through five discursive chapters, Ramsey, who is Professor of Music and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, unpacks these various threads with formidable scholarship and an attitude rooted in critical-theory aesthetics. Ramsey cites dozens of pertinent monographs published over the past quarter-century, synopsizes their theses in reasonably clear prose, and dialogues cogently with the academic peers and intellectual forebears he references. In tracing “Powell’s points of intersection” along this interdisciplinary matrix, he allies himself with Professor George E. Lewis’ concept of “Afrological” and “Eurological” modes of artistic consciousness. Ramsey convincingly situates Powell within parallel streams of Afro-American literary and visual arts activity during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s; less persuasive are several digressions that incorporate feminist theory, particularly in the chapter titled “Bebop Virtuosity, Manhood, and a New Social Contract.” He models the final chapter, “Exploding Narratives and Structures in the Art of Bud Powell,” which comprises musicological analyses and transcriptions of several phases of Powell’s improvisations and compositions between 1944 and 1953, on pianist-composer Vijay Iyer’s theoretical work.

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