DANCE OF THE INFIDELS: A PORTRAIT OF BUD POWELL by Francis Paudras is a story of musical genius, personal torment, and true friendship. Though immensely sad, the book also rises to the level of rare beauty. The French version of Paudras’ memoir was first published in 1986. This forceful translation by Rubye Monet is long overdue.
Paudras begins with an introduction to the already legendary but tragic figure of Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell (1924-1966) in the early 1950’s, before the two had met. Powell was a revered originator of “be bop,” the dominant form of contemporary jazz. But Powell had also been subject to a severe clubbing by Philadelphia police in 1945. He suffered from debilitating headaches, had been hospitalized for mental illness, and had a reputation for substance abuse.
Paudras then introduces himself. Born in 1935 in a Paris suburb, his legacy from his parents included an intense love of music and training in classical piano. Contrary to his parents’ wishes, Paudras developed a fascination for jazz. His favorite artist was the pioneering jazz pianist Bud Powell.
In 1957, the two men met when Powell came to Paris for a gig at the Blue Note. Powell was not in good shape. He was uncommunicative and clearly drugged for easy management by his “wife” Buttercup. In the next few years, Paudras became Powell’s closest friend. Ultimately, he rescued Powell from his abusive home life and another bout with hospitalization. Powell came to live with Paudras and his wife, gradually recovering both his personal faculties and musical acumen. In 1964, he was invited back to New York City for a gig at Birdland.
Paudras accompanied Powell back to New York City, where despite some encouraging moments, disaster soon overtook Powell. Distraught, Paudras returned to Paris without his friend. In Paudras’ absence, Powell’s mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. He never played quality music again and was soon dead.
Despite this tragic story, Paudras conveys both the beauty of Powell’s music (one will want to listen or re-listen to every Powell recording) and the beauty of a rare friendship. Along the way, Paudras shares loads of anecdotes about jazz celebrities and captures the harsh reality of jazz, a majestic art form destined to be overlooked in a market oriented world.