The Kennedy Center

Mel Powell


Mel Powell (1923-1998) began his career as a jazz pianist and arranger, most notably for clarinetist Benny Goodman, but later turned to composing classical music after studying with composer Paul Hindemith at Yale University.
Born Melvin Epstein in the Bronx, New York, he began playing piano as a child. His older brother took him to a Benny Goodman concert when Mel was young, and his interest in playing jazz piano grew. He played for a number of bands and wrote arrangements for them. He changed his name to Mel Powell just before joining the Benny Goodman Band in 1941 when he was 18. He played, and wrote arrangements, for Goodman for two years. He later became a member of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band.
At just 26, he decided he had done all he wanted to do in jazz and enrolled in Yale as a pupil of composer Paul Hindemith. Although he returned briefly to playing jazz again in the mid-1950s, he remained principally a teacher and composer of classical music. He taught initially at Yale and later at the California Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, a position he held until his death.
Powell preferred to call his music “nontonal” as opposed to the “atonal” style of Paul Hindemith and other 20th century composers. Powell also experimented with electronic music. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1990 for his concerto for two pianos and orchestra, Duplicates.
Mel Powell