Jazz Pianist Bud Powell & His Guardian Angel

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I am just now reading Oliver Sacks’ recent memoir, On the Move. In one chapter he recalls his older brother’s descent into schizophrenia and its effect upon their parents, who were both doctors like him.

Michael Sacks was prescribed Largactil, a powerful tranquilizer also known as Thorazine in America. This was around the same time that a young Francis Paudras (b. 1935–1997) both housed,  championed, chaperoned, and otherwise took care of great bebop pianist Bud Powell (1924–1966). Thorazine could remedy severe psychotic episodes, but was known to also turn patient into zombies. Until reading about Michael Sacks today, I hadn’t heard the word, Largactil, since interviewing Francis Paudras in 1987.

One night in 1945, the famous Bud Powell had been wandering Broad Street Station drunk and  separated from his band members, when he was badly clubbed and arrested by a Philadelphia policeman. He returned to New York City following his release, but the headaches persisted, and he checked himself into Bellevue Hospital Center.

He never fully recovered from the tragic beating. When questioned about his profession during admittance, Powell replied that he was a pianist and composer of over 100 songs. “Delusions of grandeur” was the official diagnosis recorded in his medical file.

If you’ve never seen the 1986 film, Round Midnight, I recommend it. Based on Paudras’ book La Danse des Infidels (Dance of the Infidels, a song of Bud Powell’s),  the film dramatizes the story of Francis Paudras, a young patron who idolized American jazz artists and took Bud Powell under his wing while he was living in Paris from 1959–1963. In the film, François Cluzet, who played Paudras, did everything he could to help save his hero, Powell, played by saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Paudras even protected Powell from his wife, Buttercup, whom he suspected of over-administering tranquilizers that stifled Powell’s creativity and enabled her to seize control of his assets. It turns out that Buttercup had Powell on Largactil, which Paudras discovered when he took the prescription to a French hospital to get checked out.

th-1I met Francis Paudras in the 1980s while he was in Los Angeles, promoting his amazing book, To Bird With Love. He visited KCRW one day, and I was immediately taken by his passion for jazz. At the time, he was a graphic designer in Paris who had done many great jazz LP covers as well as writing books. I later got to visit him at his country home in Antigny. He later published La Danse des Infidèles in 1986, named for one of Bud Powell’s compositions, “Dance of the Infidels.” It’s a beautiful account of their years of friendship, which he talked about during our 1987 interview. You can read about it in my book, Stolen Moments (1988).

Reading about Largactil in Sacks’ memoir conjured up these memories of Francis Paudras and Bud Powell. When the latter returned to America, sadly, no longer under the protection of his guardian angel, Powell’s life descended into chaos, and he passed away three years later in 1966.

In the translation of my interview with Paudras, which I’d taped in French, he recalled waking up from a terrible nightmare on July 31, 1966, as if it had been a premonition. He learned the very next day that Bud Powell had passed away around that very same time. “It was as if something had snapped in the universe,” Paudras lamented.

As for this wonderful saint of a man, Francis Paudras, I was devastated to hear that he took his own life in 1997. He was a fine jazz pianist, jazz archivist and owned a Jeep that that he painted yellow and which had once been driven proudly down the Champs-Elysées in June of 1944, when Paris was liberated.

Watch Bud Powell perform “Dance of the Infidels.”

Watch the trailer for Round Midnight.

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