Mel Powell Day

February 12, 1923 – April 24, 1998

 

A tribute to the talented swing pianist-arranger

Pianist and arranger Melvin Epstein (who changed his last name to Powell in 1940) was born on February 12, 1923 in the Bronx, New York.

He studied classical piano but, after seeing Teddy Wilson play, he switched to jazz, at least for a time.

Powell was playing professionally by the time he was 14 and at 16 he was working with Bobby Hackett, George Brunies and Zutty Singleton.

Powell was the intermission pianist at Nick’s in New York, recorded with Wingy Manone, and was a member of Muggsy Spanier’s big band in 1940 when he was 17.

During 1941-42, Powell, whose playing was influenced by Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines, was not only Benny Goodman’s regular pianist but contributed such arrangements as “The Earl,” “Mission To Moscow,” “Clarinade” and a hit version of “Jersey Bounce” to Goodman’s repertoire.

After playing with Raymond Scott’s CBS Orchestra during part of 1942, Powell spent two years in the Army, performing with Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band where he was one of the main soloists.

After his discharge, he was with Goodman off and on during 1945-57, worked in the studios as both a pianist and an arranger, and led a few studio dates for Vanguard in the 1950s up to 1955 when he was still just 32.

Mel Powell gradually left jazz to become a highly respected classical composer; decades later he briefly returned to jazz, playing at a cruise in 1987 that was released as his last album.

Powell is featured on this film clip from the 1946 movie A Song Is Born, jamming on “Stealing Apples” with Lionel Hampton and Benny Goodman (who was playing a classical clarinetist who had never played jazz before).

-Scott Yanow