I’m pretty sure that legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman didn’t require his life-long friends to be virtuosos of his caliber, but at least one of them was just that. Pianist/composer Mel Powell might not have been quite as famous as Benny but he was every bit as talented, and over the course of their long careers they would find ways to work together again and again.
It all really started in the mid-1930s when young Bronx-born Melvin Epstein, who was studying to become a classical pianist but was starting to become more interested in jazz, found himself at a Benny Goodman concert. He came away determined to pursue a career as a jazz musician, and by age fourteen he doing just that, appearing professionally as Mel Powell.
Within a few years, he’d gained experience with various outfits and he again met up with Benny Goodman. Still just a teenager, he impressed the star with his multiple talents and was soon working for him, not only as a performer but as an arranger. It was the beginning of a friendship that would endure, and even though Powell would work with many others during his long career, including his wartime service with Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band, the two friends would always find time to collaborate on projects.
Powell’s career took an unusual turn in the 1950s when he returned to classical music, mostly as a composer, a change that was at least in part due to his health. Not surprisingly, he became a respected practitioner of the art, and was the founding dean of the California Institute of the Arts. But he didn’t leave jazz behind, and in his later years he sometimes turned up in surprising places — for example, in 1987 he formed a quintet with a few other old pros (not Benny – he’d died the year before) and played for a special cruise ship jazz festival. (Album below.) When he died in 1998 he was 75, and had become the recipient of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
(In the video below, an excerpt from the 1948 Danny Kaye film A Song Is Born, Mel Powell is shown at the piano, and he has at least one good solo, even though Lionel Hampton and Benny — pretending to be a music professor, complete with toothbrush mustache — are the main stars of the scene.)
Mel Powell Quintet – “I Can’t Get Started”