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
Interviews not in a series, part one
Biographical Note:
Composer and jazz pianist. California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) provost and dean of the School of Music.
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.