Jazz Loses a Prolific Artist and Restless Dreamer: RIP, Bob Belden

Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Yesterday, one day after the passing of Blue Note Records chairman emeritus Bruce Lundvall, came the untimely death of Bob Belden, at 58. Bob and Bruce notably crossed paths at Blue Note, which Bob had served as an A&R executive and recording artist.
Then again, there are few paths that didn’t cross Bob’s. His work as a musician, producer, arranger, bandleader and annotator ranged widely across genres, decades and borders. His grooves and his smiles were infectious. His rhythms and his opinions could hit hard. On and off the bandstand, in and out of the recording studio, his ears and his mind were wide open.
An obituary by Jeff Tamarkin in JazzTimes begins with a summary that touches on the broad strokes of Bob’s work:

Bob Belden, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, bandleader, label executive, historian and writer, died today, May 20, in New York City after suffering a massive heart attack in his Upper West Side apartment. Belden was removed from life support after being non-responsive for more than 24 hours. He was 58.
A true jack-of-all-trades in the jazz world, Belden recorded as a leader and in various band and sideman situations, playing soprano saxophone and other instruments and composing; produced recordings by other artists; conducted, orchestrated and wrote arrangements (for McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and others); created and coordinated multi-artist theme albums including Indian and Latin music tributes to Miles Davis as well as tributes to Prince, the Beatles and Sting; compiled historical releases and box sets (on Miles and others) for major record labels; wrote liner notes and articles for jazz publications; and served as an A&R executive for Blue Note Records.
Belden won Grammy Awards for his work on 1996’s Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Best Historical Album, Best Album Notes) and 1998’s Miles Davis Quintet set 1965-’68: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings(Best Album Notes). He and trumpeter Tim Hagans were also nominated for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2000 for ANIMATION/Imagination and in 2001 for Re-ANIMATION: Live!. Miles From India, which Belden conceived and produced, was nominated for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2009.

And Tamarkin points out:

Belden was known within the jazz community as something of a raconteur—always outspoken, funny, never afraid to speak out on any topic, even when (especially when) his view was not the popular one. He was a vocal critic of the state of the music industry, music education and other aspects of the world in which he traveled. Yet he traveled easily within it because he understood it so well, and was loved and respected for his individuality and the sheer magnitude and breadth of his talent.

The last time I communicated with Bob, in March, he was emailing from Tehran, Iran, where he was leading his Animation band at the FAJR International Music Festival. There’s a fascinating interview with Bob about that trip in JazzTimes. The trip inspired coverage in The New York TimesCNN and Tehran Times, among other outlets. Bob, who I’d known for half my life,  had been reading my articles about New Orleans and Cuba. He said that he thought we shared “a strong desire to illuminate,” and that he’d found that same spirit in Iran. I was on the road at the time, but I held on to Belden’s nearly breathless emails, which I think reveal a bit about all that he railed about as well as all that he found true and beautiful. Here’s some of what he wrote, exactly as it spilled out, which I think forms a better epitaph than I could create:

I’m in Tehran getting ready to break down barriers today.
Spent a week here and having an amazing time
Was in Isfahan Sunday and Monday jamming with young Iranian classical musicians

Tonight we plan to perform a short piece with an Italian string quartet at the world wrestling championships
There are three women in the quartet and until this concert no women were allowed in sporting events.
The teams from Iran and the USA are the favorites
We play tomorrow night at the Tehran opera house. We are the first music group of any genre from the USA to perform in Iran for 35 years.
They have no objections to our aggressive electronic sound (unlike the US).
People come up to me everywhere expressing happiness that we are here
Great music and food.
There is an excitement in the air that is hard to describe. We have had no negative reaction to our bring here as we wander the streets and alleys interacting with average Iranians.

[After I’d asked him for some background on the trip…]

Search for Common Ground, an NGO in London and DC, sponsored us with the addition of the Ministry of Iranian Culture and Guidance and the former Ambassador to the Vatican from Iran.
I went there because I had an opportunity and the connections and the lack of work in the USA and Europe to give me extreme incentive to make the gig happen. After all, what other festival in the world would offer a paid vacation, all expenses, 5-star hotels and a sold out gig plus global media coverage after the event and an immediate invite to return to the country?
More coming. We are planning a return trip.
Why the disconnect? I’m not a celebrity. Most people in the US have no cultural education and more important a lack of historical cultural knowledge.
And there is little information coming from Iran that is not filtered in the darkest way. And forget about the jazz world. Very depressing in many ways. So many stupid questions such as “Is there music in Iran?”
Jazz musicians can make a difference if they become real adults and assume a wider sense of responsibility towards contemporary humanity and less towards nostalgia.
One day I will have a forum to discuss Iran as an adult.

Bob’s last email included this shot from the stage of the Tehran Opera House audience, with just one line of text:

Words can’t describe the emotions on both sides of the stage

iran from belden


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