Earl Rudolph Powell, 27 September 1924, Harlem, New York City, New York, USA, d. 31 July 1966, New York City, New York, USA. After learning to play the piano in the classical tradition while still a child, Powell began working around New Yorks Coney Island, where he played in a band featuring Valaida Snow around 1940. During the next couple of years he became a regular visitor to Mintons Playhouse, where he heard the first stirrings of bebop. In particular, he was influenced by Thelonious Monks harmonic innovations but quickly developed his own style. Despite his leanings towards the new music, he was hired by Cootie Williams for his big band. During his stay with Williams he was arrested in Philadelphia and reportedly badly beaten by police officers, an event usually cited as the beginning of the mental problems that were to dog him for the rest of his life. He retained his links with events on 52nd Street and was soon one of the most striking of the bebop pianists. By 1945, however, he was displaying the first overt signs of acute mental instability and was hospitalized - the first of many incarcerations in mental hospitals, during some of which he was given electro-convulsive therapy.
Throughout the 50s he worked regularly, appearing with all the leading figures of bebop, including Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach as part of The Quintet. During this same period his mental instability increased, the sudden death in 1956 of his brother Richie Powell adding to his problems. Additionally, his mental and physical health were being gravely damaged by his growing dependence on narcotics and alcohol. At the end of the decade he left New York for Paris, where he spent three years of popular success but was still plagued by his mental and addiction troubles. Back in New York in 1964, his performances became fewer and were frequently fraught with emotional and technical breakdowns. He died in July 1966.
At his performing peak, Powells playing style displayed a startling brilliance, with remarkable ideas being executed with absolute technical mastery and his dominant right hand playing at extraordinary speeds. By the late 50s his personal problems were such that he rarely played at his best, although the flow of ideas continued, as can be deduced from some of his compositions from these years. He was a major figure in bebop and an influence, both directly and indirectly, upon most pianists in jazz since the 50s.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.