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