Bob Belden [1956-2015]

Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.

Jimi Hendrix

On this past Sunday, May 17, my friend and colleague, saxophonist-producer Bob Belden, suffered a massive heart attack.  By the time the medics got to him, his pulse had ceased for 15 minutes, and he ended up in Lenox Hill Hospital on life-support, from which he was removed at 1:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon, May 20th–a wrenching, unexpected loss, all the more stunning, coming as it did hard on the heels of Bruce Lundvall’s passing.

Lundvall, a respected music executive,  much-beloved for his support and advocacy of jazz music from the corporate side of the street, had been afflicted for some time with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, while Belden was a composer and conceptualist with a historian’s deep devotion to jazz’s roots, still very much in the game.

Nevertheless, despite this Grammy-Award winner’s well-deserved reputation not only as a composer but as an archivist and annotator, he held an iconoclast’s conviction that an artist’s responsibility was to move the music forward and connect to people–seemingly positioned for a bold new period of creative freedom and outreach, when he was suddenly taken from us.

Over the years, it seems that whenever someone dear to me transitions over to the shadow side of the mirror, I find myself referencing the title song from Alice Coltrane’s (aka; Turiya) 1970 recording, JOURNEY IN SATCHINDANANDA, with bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (which was also the very first live jazz event I ever attended–the beginning of my jazz journey–at Slugs on 3rd Street between Avenues B & C in September of 1970).

There is an ineffable, timeless, vaguely Carnatic quality to Cecil McBee’s richly inflected bass vamp and of course, the prayerful drone of Turiya’s harp (with all of the metaphorical overtones inherent in that instrument’s ecstatic sound and Coltrane’s suggestions of both ragas and the sanctified church).

And the manner in which Pharoah’s soprano saxophone swoops in with fluttering, flute-like cadences, projecting all at once such an air of meditative wonder and mystery, of loss and of acceptance, that I find this at once to be perhaps the most poignant, yet consoling pieces of music in my sonic library.

I’d be fronting if I let on that I am presently consoled by this music, though it surely offers a road map for resolution, seeing as how me and so many of my contemporaries presently find ourselves at that stage in our rites of passage where we strongly suspect that we’re playing with the house’s money.  You never know–and no one had a clue that Brother Belden was about to cash out.

Still, in reflecting on his body of his work and enduring spirit, one has to smile, because Bob Belden was a great character, a genuinely original thinker, an authentically funny motherfucker, and a truly committed musician with a genuine sense of wonder and outreach–who never let his reverence for history interfere with his pursuit of mystery.

Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life.

Art Blakey

As such, his recent musical journey to Iran–a heroic gesture not only of visionary compassion and spiritual outreach, but of great historical/humanistic insight–seemed to this scribe to mark a real creative uptick for an artist trying to ride out the economic/emotional roller coaster endemic to such a journey.  A meaningful leap forward from an artist with much left to give and something significant to say.

I was genuinely happy for Bob, and quite proud of him as well for bucking the received wisdom of those armchair warriors who can’t find the funds to support our returning veterans, yet are all too eager to roll out the heavy ordinance and bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran.  A really gutsy, meaningful gesture–which I related to him with considerable passion both in phone conversations and messages over the past few months.

And just this past week, I received a download from CHESKY Records of IN AN AMBIENT WAY, a wonderful project Bob had recently completed with trumpet master Wallace Roney and an all-star super-group, dubbed Powerhouse (featuring drummer Lenny White, bassist Daryl Johns, guitarist Oz Noy and keyboardist Kevin Hays), paying loving homage to that transitional period of Miles Davis’ post-MILES IN THE SKY explorations, which the cats at JALC seem to have peremptorily dismissed as superficial and irrelevant; the implication being that this represented a phase of the master trumpeter’s work where he’d ceased to matter–nor should it be regarded as worthy of commensurate admiration and esteem.

Bob Belden With ScoreThis writer, Brother Belden, and the members of Powerhouse beg to differ.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” William Faulkner once wrote, and while Bob Belden knew as much about America’s musical, cultural and historical antecedents as anyone I have ever encountered, he steadfastly refused to reside there, even if from time to time he reflected with considerable passion on some of its hidden gems.

Now he IS there, himself an unwilling conscript in the rear-view mirror of history…and the suddenness with which he was wrenched from our midst is still raw and disorienting to me; IN AN AMBIENT WAY is just hitting the streets as we speak, while DVD and CD documentation of Bob’s musical journey through Iran is slated for release latter in 2015.

A sigh and a smile then for Bob Belden (with a wink and a nod in the general direction of his Grammy-Award winning score to THE BLACK DAHLIA), one of the real good guys in American music, going out on a creative/compassionate high note, speaking up for the better angels of our nature both as creative artists and as human beings–as if to say the commonality which bonds American dawgs and Persian kats is so much stronger and more meaningful than the enmity of old men.

Bob Belden: a saxophonist and composer of considerable distinction, and a mensch by any other name.

Posted in radiofreechip
5 comments on “Bob Belden [1956-2015]
  1. As a long-time friend, disciple, and email commiserate of the Illustrious Beldar I was so pleased to see your informed and well-illustrated tribute to him. My association with him goes back to Denton, Texas, circa 1982, when I played in his early original fusion bands post Woody Herman. Ever since he’s been an inspirational star on my horizon (here in Chicago, ) always reminding me of the merry whimsy and deep satisfaction of dedication. Truly a musician to his very core. We communicated regularly and his last triumph in the Middle East was obviously a New Frontier (the title of one of his compositions I performed.) He was so excited and energized – I still feel the contact high. Although I mourn his passing, as I would the North Star, I am sincerely glad he went out on such a hopeful note. He deserved it. Thanks for your tribute and thank you, Bob, for setting such a fine example for your fellow travelers.

    Bradley Williams

    • radiofreechip says:

      Thanks so much Bradley, for sharing your recollections, and to everyone who honors Bob Belden’s memory with a smile. Bob thought outside the box, not unlike how Denardo Coleman characterized his father at Ornette’s recent memorial–that he refused to even acknowledge that there was a box. I too, deeply Bob’s regret passing, and feel the loss of his friendship, but take comfort in how he went out on such a hopeful note of outreach–the kind of love and mutual respect that only the most thought-provoking music can engender.

  2. Jair-Rohm says:

    Bob was one of the good guys. One of the best of them. I’m grateful for the years of our acquaintance. Words cannot express my appreciation for all that he did for me and i hope to somehow do my part to carry on with what he started. Thanks, Chip.

  3. Crocodile Chuck says:

    For his knowledge of music over the last fifty years, & the he way he shared it with us. The Miles box sets alone are productions of staggering genius.

    His love for music, and the musicians that played it-the way he gave up tenor sax, because he didn’t want to compete with his heroes & friends.

    For his own music, & the stories he told through it. ‘Black Dahlia’, ‘Transparent Heart’ & ‘Machine Language’. Sonic adventurism, v much of the 21stC.

    Bob Belden: a v special hero.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*