Mel Powell Biography

Melvin Epstein, 12 February 1923, New York City, New York, USA, d. 24 April 1998, Los Angeles, California, USA. As a teenager Powell played piano at Nick’s in New York City and soon thereafter joined Muggsy Spanier. His exceptional and at the time eclectic gifts attracted the attention of Benny Goodman, whom he joined in 1941. During his stint with Goodman he wrote several interesting charts, sometimes for his own compositions, which included ‘The Earl’, ‘Clarinet A La King’ and ‘Mission To Moscow’. Powell was then briefly on the staff at CBS, the radio and television company, before military service threatened to disrupt his career. In fact, his army service had the opposite effect and he was soon a member of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band, playing in the dance band and in the small jazz group, the Uptown Hall Gang.

After the war Powell made a few jazz records in Los Angeles, then in the early 50s recorded again with Ruby Braff and Paul Quinichette; he also appeared with Goodman around this same time, but that was the last the jazz world heard of him until the mid-80s. Powell had turned to classical music and studied with Paul Hindemith and eventually took over his place as professor of composition at Yale, and later became head of the California Institute of the Arts. During this same period Powell’s health deteriorated and his movements were severely limited. However, his playing ability was unimpaired and his return to the jazz scene, with appearances on the Caribbean jazz cruise ship, the S.S. Norway, and new recordings, showed that he had lost none of his capacity for performing inventive, dexterous solos. In 1990 Powell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Duplicates, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. He died of liver cancer in April 1998.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.