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Mel Powell; Pulitzer-Winning Composer

Obituaries

Educator: The founding dean of the CalArts School of Music began his career as a jazz pianist for Benny Goodman.

April 25, 1998|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mel Powell, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and founding dean of the CalArts School of Music in Valencia, died Friday. He was 75.

Powell, who began his long career as jazz pianist for Benny Goodman, died of liver cancer at his Sherman Oaks home, California Institute of the Arts officials said.

The educator and composer won the Pulitzer in 1990 for "Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra," which had been commissioned by music patron Betty Freeman for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"I am positively ecstatic, especially since it comes as a total surprise," Powell told The Times from his CalArts office the day of the announcement eight years ago. "Being out here on the coast, far away from the whole Eastern establishment to which the Pulitzer is connected--that made me a remote prospect. I just didn't expect it."

Former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Andre Previn, who directed the debut of Powell's work, had submitted "Duplicates" for the award without the composer's knowledge.

Powell created CalArts' music school in 1969, served as the provost from 1972 to 1976 and had been Roy E. Disney professor of composition and fellow since then.

He continued throughout his career to compose a wide range of music for orchestra, vocal soloists, choral and chamber groups and electronic instruments. Occasionally, Powell revisited his jazz piano roots, as in 1982 when he accompanied singer Peggy Lee at a Mark Taper Forum fund-raiser.

The versatile composer was known for his 12-tone techniques, quasi-improvisation and always for music that was spare and to the point.

"I have this old-fashioned idea," he told The Times in 1985 when introducing his "Strand Settings: Darker" at a CalArts concert. "I still believe that beauty consists in the most music in the shortest space."

Born Melvin Epstein in New York City, he changed his name at 14 when he was chosen as pianist for Goodman's band. After Powell was drafted into the Army, he played with Glenn Miller's Army Air Corps Band. During his jazz-playing days, Powell also began composing, and arranged for both Goodman and Miller.

Muscular dystrophy curtailed his performing career when it confined him to a wheelchair for a time and made it impossible for him to travel with bands. During his years in Los Angeles, Powell walked with a cane and joked, "I'm one of Jerry's kids," alluding to entertainer Jerry Lewis' charitable work for children with muscular dystrophy.

Although it directed him toward teaching, the disease never affected Powell's ability to play the piano or compose. Grounded, the pianist studied composition seriously--privately in New York and Los Angeles and then at the prestigious Yale School of Music with German-born composer Paul Hindemith.

Powell taught composition at Mannes and Queens colleges in New York, then returned to Yale in 1957 to succeed Hindemith as chairman of composition and to direct one of the first electronic music studios in the country.

He came to California at the inception of CalArts three decades ago and was praised Friday by its current president, Steven D. Lavine, for his "profound role in the shaping of the institute." Lavine said the music school will always bear the "imprint of his aspirations and commitment to the highest level of quality."

Current CalArts music dean and fellow composer David Rosenboom said: "Mel has helped an entire generation of young composers traverse the complex and rewarding sonic landscape of 20th century music."

Powell's honors, in addition to the Pulitzer and a Mel Powell Chair at CalArts, included a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation for the Library of Congress, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, Brandeis University's Creative Arts Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary life membership in the Arnold Schoenberg Institute.

Powell is survived by his wife of 52 years, actress Martha Scott, and their three children, Kati Powell, Mary Harpel and Scott Alsop.

Memorial services are pending at CalArts and in Los Angeles. Burial will be in Jamesport, Mo.

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