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)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf The Mel Powell Papers, 1942-1991, inclusive Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
correspondedWith Adler, Samuel person
associatedWith Adler, Samuel, 1928- person
associatedWith Alberti, Rafael. person
correspondedWith Allanbrook, Douglas. person
correspondedWith Allen, Steve person
associatedWith Allen, Steve, 1921- person
correspondedWith American International Music Fund corporateBody
correspondedWith American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Committee of Awards corporateBody
correspondedWith Arel, Bülent person
associatedWith Arel, Bülent, 1919- person
correspondedWith ASCAP. Committee of Awards corporateBody
associatedWith Babbitt, Milton, 1916- person
correspondedWith Bailey, Pearl. person
correspondedWith Balliett, Whitney. person
associatedWith Basie, Count; Ellington, Duke; Scott, Hazel; Wilson, Teddy person
correspondedWith Batstone, Philip person
correspondedWith Beardslee, Bethany. person
associatedWith Beardslee, Bethany; Lee, Peggy person
correspondedWith Beeson, Paul B. person
correspondedWith Bellson, Louis. person
correspondedWith Bellson, Pearl &Louis person
correspondedWith Bernstein, Leonard person
correspondedWith Bettelheim, Wilhelm person
correspondedWith Boretz, Benjamin person
correspondedWith Boston University. Division of General Education corporateBody
correspondedWith Bote &Bock corporateBody
associatedWith Boulez, Pierre person
correspondedWith Brandeis University. Electronic Music Studio corporateBody
correspondedWith Brandeis University. Office of the President corporateBody
associatedWith Brandt, Anthony Kroy. person
associatedWith Burge, David, 1930- person
correspondedWith Cadranel, Barbara person
associatedWith California Lutheran University. corporateBody
correspondedWith Canadian League of Composers corporateBody
correspondedWith Cariaga, Daniel Philip person
correspondedWith Carl Fischer, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Carter, Elliott; Subotnick, Morton person
correspondedWith Cassidy, Harold person
correspondedWith Ch'ien, Armstrong person
correspondedWith Clark, Frances person
correspondedWith Cogan, Robert person
correspondedWith Coleman, Avron person
correspondedWith Collins, Patricia person
correspondedWith Colorado College. Music Department corporateBody
correspondedWith Columbia and Princeton Universities. Electronic Music Center corporateBody
correspondedWith Columbia University. President corporateBody
correspondedWith Commonwealth Fund. Harkness Fellowships corporateBody
correspondedWith Composer in Performance, Inc. corporateBody
correspondedWith Composers Recordings, Inc. corporateBody
correspondedWith Composers' Showcase corporateBody
associatedWith Conover, Willis. person
correspondedWith Cook, Ken person
correspondedWith Cotton, W. Philip person
correspondedWith Cousins, Norman. person
correspondedWith Craft, Robert. person
correspondedWith CRI corporateBody
correspondedWith Curran, Alvin person
correspondedWith Dahl, Ingolf person
associatedWith Dahl, Ingolf, 1912-1970 person
correspondedWith Darien Community Association corporateBody
associatedWith Dello Joio, Norman, 1913- person
correspondedWith Eastman School of Music corporateBody
associatedWith England, Nicholas person
associatedWith Epstein, Mildred Powell's mother person
correspondedWith Evanson, Jacob A. person
correspondedWith Father Marquette Tercentenary Commission corporateBody
associatedWith Feather, Leonard. person
associatedWith Feather, Leonard; Williams, Jillean person
associatedWith Feinberg, Alan; Taub, Robert person
correspondedWith Feldman, Morton person
associatedWith Feldman, Morton, 1926- person
associatedWith Feldman, Morton; La Barbara, Joan person
correspondedWith Fennelly, Brian. person
correspondedWith Festival Orchestra Society, Inc. corporateBody
correspondedWith Fine Arts Foundation of Connecticut corporateBody
correspondedWith Fischer, William S. person
correspondedWith Fogden, Avril Lynn person
correspondedWith Ford Foundation corporateBody
associatedWith Foss, Lukas, 1922- person
correspondedWith Freedman, Guy person
associatedWith Freeman, Betty person
associatedWith Freeman, Betty; Miller, David Alan person
correspondedWith Freeman, Robert person
correspondedWith Fromm Music Foundation corporateBody
correspondedWith Gaburo, Kenneth. person
correspondedWith Garvey, John person
associatedWith Gilbert, N. Scott. person
correspondedWith Gish, Lillian person
associatedWith Gish, Lillian, 1896- person
correspondedWith Glass, Christopher person
correspondedWith Goode, Richard. person
associatedWith Goodman, Benny person
associatedWith Goodman, Benny; Griffin, Merv person
associatedWith Goodman, Benny; Griffin, Merv; unidentified person
correspondedWith Goodman, Rachel person
correspondedWith Gottlieb, Marc person
correspondedWith Gottlieb, Marc and Suzanne person
associatedWith Gould, Morton, 1913- person
associatedWith Greissle, Felix, 1894- person
correspondedWith G. Ricordi corporateBody
associatedWith Griffin, Merv person
correspondedWith G. Schirmer, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Harbison, John. person
correspondedWith Hare, Montgomery person
correspondedWith Harth, Sidney. person
correspondedWith Helps, Robert. person
correspondedWith Henderson, Harold G. person
associatedWith Henderson, Harold Gould. person
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
correspondedWith ISCM corporateBody
correspondedWith John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation corporateBody
correspondedWith Joio, Norman Dello person
correspondedWith Junker, Howard person
correspondedWith Kagel, Mauricio. person
associatedWith Kanakri, Terry. person
correspondedWith Karol Rathaus Memorial Association corporateBody
correspondedWith Kemeny, Alex person
correspondedWith Kirkpatrick, Ralph. person
associatedWith Kozinn, Allan. person
correspondedWith KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith KUSC-FM (Radio station : Los Angeles, Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith La Barbara, Joan person
correspondedWith Ladd, Diane. person
correspondedWith Latham, W., Mrs. person
correspondedWith Lee, Peggy person
associatedWith Lee, Peggy, 1920- person
correspondedWith Lemmon, Jack. person
correspondedWith Lewitzky, Bella person
correspondedWith Library of Congress. Music Division. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation corporateBody
correspondedWith Lodge, John Davis, Mrs. person
correspondedWith Machlis, Joseph person
associatedWith Machlis, Joseph, 1906- person
associatedWith Martino, Donald. person
associatedWith McFadden, Robert D. person
associatedWith McKinley, William Thomas. person
associatedWith McLellan, Joseph. person
correspondedWith Mekeel, Joyce. person
correspondedWith MENC corporateBody
correspondedWith Meyer, Leonard B. person
correspondedWith Meyers, Emerson person
associatedWith Miller, David Alan person
correspondedWith Modern Brass Ensemble corporateBody
correspondedWith Moldenhauer, Hans. person
associatedWith Monteverdi, Claudio. person
associatedWith Moog, Bob. person
correspondedWith Moog, Robert person
correspondedWith Moreland, Margaret person
correspondedWith Musical America corporateBody
correspondedWith Musical Heritage Society corporateBody
correspondedWith Music Educators National Conference corporateBody
correspondedWith Nagel, Robert person
correspondedWith National Institute of Arts andLetters corporateBody
correspondedWith National Music Council corporateBody
associatedWith Natwick, Mildred; unidentified person
correspondedWith New Dimensions in Music corporateBody
correspondedWith New York Brass Quintet corporateBody
correspondedWith New York Philharmonic corporateBody
correspondedWith New York String Trio corporateBody
correspondedWith Nilsson, Bo. person
correspondedWith Nixon, Marni. person
correspondedWith North Texas State University. School of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Nye, Anita &Louis person
associatedWith Nye, Louis. person
correspondedWith Oberlin College. Festival of Contemporary Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Oberlin College. Office of the President corporateBody
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
correspondedWith Pennsylvania State University. College of Arts and Architecture corporateBody
correspondedWith Perlis, Vivian. person
associatedWith Perry, Jeffrey. person
correspondedWith Peter Pauper Press corporateBody
associatedWith Peyser, Joan. person
correspondedWith Pingree School corporateBody
correspondedWith Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra corporateBody
associatedWith Powell, Katie; unidentified person
correspondedWith Powell, Mary. person
associatedWith Powell, Mel. person
correspondedWith Previn, André person
associatedWith Previn, André, 1929- person
correspondedWith Princeton University. Music Association corporateBody
correspondedWith Princeton University Press corporateBody
associatedWith Reich, Howard. person
correspondedWith Reisenberg, Nadia. person
associatedWith Robins, Reid. person
correspondedWith Rockefeller Foundation. Arts Program corporateBody
correspondedWith Rosen, Judith person
associatedWith Rossum, Frans van. person
associatedWith Rubin, Anna. person
correspondedWith Sale, Mary Clare person
correspondedWith Samuel, Harold E. person
correspondedWith Schoen, William person
correspondedWith Schuller, Robert person
associatedWith Schuller, Robert Harold. person
associatedWith Scott, Martha, 1914- person
correspondedWith Shallenberg, Robert person
correspondedWith Shawnee Press, Inc. corporateBody
correspondedWith Sigma Alpha Iota corporateBody
correspondedWith Sigma Alpha Iota. Inter-American Music Awards corporateBody
correspondedWith Silver Hill Foundation corporateBody
correspondedWith Skelton, William person
correspondedWith Society for the Publication of American Music, Inc. corporateBody
correspondedWith Solomon, Jennifer person
correspondedWith Sperry, Paul. person
correspondedWith Spokane Conservatory corporateBody
correspondedWith State University of New York at Buffalo. Center of the Creative and Performing Arts corporateBody
correspondedWith Steinberg, William person
correspondedWith Stein, Leonard. person
correspondedWith St. Louis Symphony Society. Women's Association. Junior Division corporateBody
associatedWith Stockhausen, Karlheinz, 1928- person
correspondedWith Stoltzman, Lucy &Richard, and Richard Goode person
associatedWith Stoltzman, Richard. person
associatedWith Strand, Mark person
correspondedWith Subotnick, Morton. person
correspondedWith Suderburg, Robert person
associatedWith Takahashi, Aki person
correspondedWith Taub, Robert. person
correspondedWith Teitelbaum, Richard person
correspondedWith Thimmig, Leslie person
associatedWith Toch, Ernst, 1887-1964 person
correspondedWith Treadway, Candee A. person
associatedWith Turetzky, Bertram, 1933- person
correspondedWith Turkish Consulate General, New York corporateBody
correspondedWith United States. Dept. of State. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs corporateBody
correspondedWith University of California, San Diego. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Florida. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Hartford. Institute of Contemporary American Music corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Michigan. School of Music. Electronic Music Studio corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Oregon. Summer Session corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Pennsylvania. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith University of Toronto. Royal Conservatory of Music. Electronic Music Studio corporateBody
correspondedWith Ussachevsky, Vladimir person
associatedWith Ussachevsky, Vladimir, 1911- person
correspondedWith Valenti, Fernando. person
correspondedWith Varèse, Edgard person
associatedWith Varèse, Edgard, 1883-1965 person
associatedWith Vermeulen, Ernst. person
correspondedWith Vierk, Lois person
associatedWith Vierk, Lois V. person
correspondedWith Washington University. Department of Music corporateBody
correspondedWith Wilder, Isabel person
associatedWith Wilder, Isabel, 1900- person
associatedWith Wilder, Thornton, 1897-1975 person
correspondedWith Williams, Jillean person
associatedWith Williams, Jillean; Williams, Joe person
associatedWith Williams, Joe, 1918- person
correspondedWith Williams, Joe &Jillean person
correspondedWith Wilson College. Public Information Office corporateBody
correspondedWith Winks, Robin W. person
correspondedWith WQED (Television station :Pittsburgh, Pa.) corporateBody
correspondedWith Wykes, Robert. person
correspondedWith Xenakis, Iannis person
associatedWith Xenakis, Iannis, 1922- person
correspondedWith Yale University. Class of 1928 corporateBody
correspondedWith Yale University. Committee on Commissioned Works corporateBody
correspondedWith Yale University. Music Library corporateBody
correspondedWith Yale University. Newcomers' Club corporateBody
correspondedWith Yale University. Office of the President corporateBody
associatedWith Zaferes, Peter. person
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Composers--Correspondence
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