Oral Histories

Interview of Mel Powell

Composer and jazz pianist. California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) provost and dean of the School of Music.
Exile at Home
Cline, Alex
Powell, Mel
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Childhood in the Bronx; how Powell chose the name Powell to replace his given name of Epstein; Powell's early heroes, Claude Debussy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Babe Ruth; piano lessons as a child; Powell's prowess at baseball; Powell is forced to choose between baseball and music; first jazz concert experience, the Benny Goodman orchestra at the Paramount Theatre; Powell is befriended and guided by jazz musician Heggie Baron; begins performing as a jazz pianist; drops out of school to pursue a career in jazz; the social and racial overtones of jazz in the 1930s; the development of Powell's piano style; early encouragement to compose; Powell joins the Benny Goodman orchestra; City College of New York during Powell's time there; Powell's arrangements for Goodman; life on the road with Goodman; Powell leaves the Goodman orchestra before receiving his draft notice; Powell is tapped to be a member of Glenn Miller's Army Air Force orchestra after enduring basic training; Miller's tragic death; discharge from the army and return to new York; engagements at Nick's nightclub in duet with Nat King Cole; accompanying Billie Holiday; reasons Powell began moving away from jazz performance to the study of composition; accepts employment as a house pianist at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in California; Powell's wife, Martha Scott; disenchantment with being a studio musician; André Previn; contemporary composers and literary figures in Los Angeles while Powell was there; comparing the Austro-Germanic, French, and Russian composition traditions; Powell's composition studies at Yale University under Paul Hindemith; Powell's early compositions; Powell is invited to teach at Yale; Powell's approach to teaching composition at Yale; alignment with the European tradition; Charles Ives; Powell's total separation from his jazz background; the development of American composed music in the years surrounding World War II; the purity of art; the profound influence of Weber on Powell; use of electronics in some of Powell's compositions; specific compositions by Powell; the challenge of teaching and composing simultaneously; Powell is asked to establish the music department at the as yet unbuilt California Institute of the Arts (CalArts); leaves Yale to accept the CalArts offer; Powell is elected to serve as provost at CalArts; appointees at CalArts immediately begin working against the board of trustees instead of with them; an incident during one meeting which proved nearly fatal for the school; music faculty Powell helped to bring to CalArts at its inception; ceases to compose or to teach while acting as provost; Powell's view that the need for the school to survive superseded any political agenda; Robert Fitzpatrick becomes president of CalArts and appoints Powell's successor; Powell returns to composing; specific compositions by Powell after the end of his administrative duties; uses the computer as a tool for composing; Powell and an incident involving a Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra concert with Frank Zappa; investigates a modular approach to composition; Powell's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; the limited funding and performance opportunities available for contemporary music in the United States; the role and relevance of "serious" music as an art form in the present day; the view that Powell's type of "difficult music" is obsolete; Powell briefly returns to his jazz background in the late eighties; changes in the musical language of jazz; the development of an American identity in contemporary composed music; Powell's assessment of his own compositional evolution; Powell's joy in his work.