Mel Powell was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, and the founding dean of the music department at the California Institute of the Arts. He served as an educator for over 40 years, first at Mannes College of Music and Queens College, then Yale University. During his early career he worked as a jazz pianist, Mel Powell was born Melvin D. Epstein on February 12,1923, in The Bronx, New York City to Russian Jewish parents, Milton Epstein and Mildred Mark Epstein. He began playing piano at age four, taking lessons from, among others, a passionate baseball fan, his home was within sight of Yankee Stadium. A hand injury while playing baseball as a boy, however, Powell dreamed of life as a concert pianist until his older brother took him to see jazz pianist Teddy Wilson play, and later to a concert featuring Benny Goodman. In a 1987 interview with The New Yorker magazine Powell said I had never heard anything as ecstatic as this music, by the age of 14 Powell was performing jazz professionally around New York City. As early as 1939, he was working with Bobby Hackett, George Brunies and he changed his last name from Epstein to Powell in 1941 shortly before joining Benny Goodmans band. Powells style was rooted in the style that was the direct precursor to swing piano. One composition from his Goodman years, The Earl, is perhaps his best-known from that time and it is notable that the song—dedicated to Earl Fatha Hines, one of Powells piano heroes—was recorded without a drummer. After nearly two years with Goodman, Powell played briefly with the CBS radio band under director Raymond Scott before Uncle Sam came calling. With World War II at its height, Powell was drafted into the U. S. Army, but fought his battles from a piano stool, having been assigned to Glenn Millers Army Air Force Band from 1943 to 1945. Near the wars end, Powell was stationed in Paris, where he played with Django Reinhardt and it was around this time, the mid-to-late 1940s, that Powell moved to Hollywood and ventured into providing music for movies and cartoons—notably Tom and Jerry. In 1948 he played himself in the movie A Song Is Born, appearing along with other famous jazz players. It was during his time in Hollywood that he met and married actress Martha Scott, Mel Powell had a major health crisis in the late 1940s when he developed muscular dystrophy. From 1948 to 1952 he studied at Yale University with German composer, but Powell did not completely turn his back on jazz. While teaching in the 1950s, he played piano and recorded music with Benny Goodman again. Powell composed for orchestra, chorus, voice, and chamber ensemble throughout the 1960s, 1970s, in 1969 he returned to California to serve as founding dean of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. After serving as Provost of the Institute from 1972 to 1976 he was appointed the Roy O. Disney Professor of music, notable students include composer Ann Millikan
Image: Mel Powell
Powell and actress wife Martha Scott at home in 1947. An award to Powell from Downbeat magazine rests on the table.
Gravesite of Mel Powell and wife Martha Scott in Jamesport, Missouri.