Mel Powell

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Throughout much of the twentieth century, "classical" and "popular" music were distinct and sometimes mutually suspicious universes, each with its own canon, values, and customs. Stars from one occasionally tried to cross over to the other, but all too often the results ranged from the merely acceptable to the truly embarrassing. Only a precious few musicians reached the summit of both worlds. Mel Powell was such a rarity. Partisans of each camp regarded him as one of their own, and were sometimes surprised to learn of his other accomplishments.

Powell was born Melvin Epstein in the Bronx, New York on February 12, 1923. Both of his parents were immigrants from Russia. His father, a boxer, traveling salesman, and bridge player, was rarely in town, and the family was dominated by Powell's maternal grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi. Powell showed an early interest in music, and began taking lessons from Sara Barg, a German pianist. (Later he would also study with Nadia Reisenberg.)

When he was thirteen, his brother took him to a Benny Goodman concert, and he quickly became fascinated by jazz. He took lessons with Willie "The Lion" Smith, and before long was performing with musicians such as Bobby Hackett, Georg Brunis, Zutty Singleton, Muggsy Spanier, and Wingy Manone, and arranging for Earl Hines. Meanwhile, he also studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar at the Juilliard School. His precocious talents were by no means limited to music; he graduated from high school at the age of fourteen, briefly attended the City College of New York, and even played semiprofessional baseball. He also changed his name from Melvin Epstein to Mel Powell, a name borrowed from an uncle originally called Poljanowsky.

In 1941 Powell became a pianist and arranger for Benny Goodman's band; he also produced some original compositions for Goodman, of which "Mission to Moscow" and "The Earl" are the best known. He remained with the band for only a year, but this youthful phase of his career retains an almost legendary status among jazz aficionados. Powell then performed with Raymond Scott's orchestra at CBS until he was drafted into the military, where he was asked to play in Glenn Miller's Army Air Forces Band. This ensemble included musicians with classical backgrounds, and Powell wrote several works for their use.

After the war, Powell went to Hollywood and worked for MGM as a composer, arranger, and pianist. He also married Martha Scott, an actress best known for her starring role in Our Town, both on Broadway and on screen. While in California, he continued his compositional studies with Ernst Toch. Before long, Powell returned to the east coast, enrolling at Yale University to study with Paul Hindemith. He received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1952, and went on to teach at Mannes College and Queens College, CUNY. Throughout this period he continued to perform sporadically as a jazz pianist, with Goodman and a variety of other musicians.

In 1957, Powell joined the Yale faculty, and later he was promoted to chairman of the composition department, the job formerly held by Hindemith. He also established an electronic music studio at Yale, one of the first in the country. He helped found Perspectives of New Music and served on the editorial board of the Yale-based Journal of Music Theory. >From 1961 to 1963 he was president of the American Music Center.

In 1969 Powell left Yale to become Dean of the music school at the newly founded California Institute for the Arts. This was a turbulent time at many colleges and universities, and CalArts was no exception; political disputes soon led to Powell's unexpected appointment as Provost of the entire Institute. For nearly a decade, his duties left little time for music, but when the situation stabilized, he gave up his administrative posts to accept a chair of composition endowed by the Disney family.

Powell's early works were largely neo-classical in style; Hindemith was an important influence. Beginning in the mid-'50s, he turned to 12-tone music, especially the techniques developed by Anton Webern. (Indeed, he attributed his appointment as chair of composition at Yale to his knowledge of Webern.) He produced several electronic works, sometimes for tape or synthesizer alone, and sometimes in collaboration with voices or traditional instruments. Whatever styles and techniques he used, Powell's compositions tend to be economical; most are scored for solo performers or small ensembles, and are of relatively short duration. He liked to quote Frans Hemsterhuis' definition of the beautiful as "the greatest number of ideas in the shortest space of time."

Powell received awards, grants, and commissions from many organizations, including the Koussevitzky Foundation, Sigma Alpha Iota, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Yale University, and Brandeis University. In 1990 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Duplicates, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. An endowed chair at CalArts was created in his name in 1998.

Between the mid-'50s and mid-'80s, Powell rarely played jazz. Contrary to some reports, though, he did not give it up altogether in this period; his papers include numerous photographs of his performance with Benny Goodman on The Merv Griffin Show in 1976. (The photographs are undated, but the performance is documented in D. Russell Connor, BennyGoodman: Listen to his Legacy. Studies in Jazz, No. 6 [Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, 1988], p. 282.) In 1986 and 1987, he performed with several other jazz notables aboard the cruise ship Norway, and released a compact disc called The Return of Mel Powell. The revival of his jazz career was curtailed by an illness that interfered with his playing. Initially regarded as muscular dystrophy, his ailment was eventually diagnosed as body-inclusion poly-myecitis.

Mel Powell died of liver cancer on April 24, 1998 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California.

From the guide to the The Mel Powell Papers, 1942-1991, inclusive, (Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University)

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creatorOf The Mel Powell Papers, 1942-1991, inclusive Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
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correspondedWith Adler, Samuel person
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correspondedWith Arel, Bülent person
associatedWith Arel, Bülent, 1919- person
correspondedWith ASCAP. Committee of Awards corporateBody
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correspondedWith Batstone, Philip person
correspondedWith Beardslee, Bethany. person
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correspondedWith Hodkinson, Sydney person
correspondedWith Hope College. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Howard, Dean C. person
correspondedWith IGNM corporateBody
correspondedWith Illinois Wesleyan University. Symposium of Contemporary Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Indiana University. Latin-American Music Center corporateBody
correspondedWith International Society for Contemporary Music corporateBody
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correspondedWith John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation corporateBody
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correspondedWith Junker, Howard person
correspondedWith Kagel, Mauricio. person
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correspondedWith Kirkpatrick, Ralph. person
associatedWith Kozinn, Allan. person
correspondedWith KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.) corporateBody
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associatedWith La Barbara, Joan person
correspondedWith Ladd, Diane. person
correspondedWith Latham, W., Mrs. person
correspondedWith Lee, Peggy person
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correspondedWith Lemmon, Jack. person
correspondedWith Lewitzky, Bella person
correspondedWith Library of Congress. Music Division. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation corporateBody
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correspondedWith Machlis, Joseph person
associatedWith Machlis, Joseph, 1906- person
associatedWith Martino, Donald. person
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correspondedWith Mekeel, Joyce. person
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correspondedWith Nixon, Marni. person
correspondedWith North Texas State University. School of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Nye, Anita &Louis person
associatedWith Nye, Louis. person
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correspondedWith Olsen, A. Loren person
correspondedWith O'Neal, Hank person
correspondedWith Orchestre National de Belgique corporateBody
correspondedWith Ouellette, Fernand. person
correspondedWith Pallett, Marshall person
correspondedWith Pan-American Union. Music Division corporateBody
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correspondedWith Pingree School corporateBody
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associatedWith Powell, Katie; unidentified person
correspondedWith Powell, Mary. person
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correspondedWith Previn, André person
associatedWith Previn, André, 1929- person
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correspondedWith Reisenberg, Nadia. person
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correspondedWith Samuel, Harold E. person
correspondedWith Schoen, William person
correspondedWith Schuller, Robert person
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correspondedWith Sigma Alpha Iota corporateBody
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correspondedWith Sperry, Paul. person
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correspondedWith Suderburg, Robert person
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correspondedWith Taub, Robert. person
correspondedWith Teitelbaum, Richard person
correspondedWith Thimmig, Leslie person
associatedWith Toch, Ernst, 1887-1964 person
correspondedWith Treadway, Candee A. person
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correspondedWith University of California, San Diego. Department of Music corporateBody
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correspondedWith University of Hartford. Institute of Contemporary American Music corporateBody
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correspondedWith University of Pennsylvania. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Toronto. Royal Conservatory of Music. Electronic Music Studio corporateBody
correspondedWith Ussachevsky, Vladimir person
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correspondedWith Valenti, Fernando. person
correspondedWith Varèse, Edgard person
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correspondedWith Vierk, Lois person
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correspondedWith Washington University. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Wilder, Isabel person
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correspondedWith Williams, Jillean person
associatedWith Williams, Jillean; Williams, Joe person
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