Bob Belden, Jazz Saxophonist, Composer and Historian, Dies at 58
Bob Belden, a jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger, bandleader and record producer who was both a historian of the music and a force in moving it forward, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 58.
He died three days after having a heart attack, his sister, Beth Belden Harmstone, said.
Engaged and opinionated, Mr. Belden was part reformist and part conservationist. As a bandleader and record maker, he often looked for ways to connect the jazz tradition to other energies. In February he performed with his group Animation in Tehran, in a concert brought about in part by the American nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground. It was the first time an American musician had played in Iran since 1979.
Through the 1990s, he worked with a pool of studio musicians to create albums of rearranged songs by Prince, Sting, the Beatles and Carole King, as well as a jazz setting of Puccini’s “Turandot.” He later recorded albums of Miles Davis’s music recast with sitar and tabla (“Miles From India,” nominated for a 2009 Grammy as best contemporary jazz album) and with Andalusian sounds (“Miles Español: New Sketches of Spain,” released in 2011). With Animation, a group he formed in the late 1990s, he combined jazz improvisers, including the trumpeter Tim Hagans, with live replications of electronic drum-and-bass rhythms and a D.J.
Much like Davis, whose work he continued to revisit with various bands and for various ends, Mr. Belden often criticized what he considered misplaced nostalgia within the jazz world. But he was also an authority on the music’s past, working as producer and annotator of many reissues, including Columbia’s long-running series of Davis boxed sets. He received three Grammy Awards for production and liner-note writing for those projects.
James Robert Belden was born on Oct. 31, 1956, in Evanston, Ill. His father, Virgil Ray Belden, an executive with United States Gypsum, was an amateur pianist; his mother, the former Mary Elizabeth Passailaigue, worked in a middle school library and sang in choirs. At an early age, he moved with his family to Goose Creek, S.C., north of Charleston.
In addition to his sister, Mr. Belden is survived by a brother, John.
After mastering several instruments in high school, he entered the University of North Texas College of Music on a scholarship at 16 and majored in composition. He was a member of the One O’Clock Lab Band, the school’s touring jazz ensemble.
After graduating he joined Woody Herman’s big band, and in 1983 he moved to New York, where he composed and arranged music for television as well as taking part in jazz recording sessions before forming his own 12-piece group, with which he made his first record, the suite “Treasure Island,” in 1989.
As an extension of the work he had been doing for Blue Note Records in the 1990s — making his own albums as well as producing and arranging for others’ — Mr. Belden became the label’s head of artists and repertoire in 1997. He quit the job after less than year, citing conflicts between the life of an artist and the life of a record executive. (Mr. Belden died a day after Bruce Lundvall, who had run Blue Note for 25 years.)
He formed a new version of Animation in 2011, keeping Mr. Hagans and adding three young musicians from the University of North Texas. A year later the group made the record “Transparent Heart” for the Rare Noise label.
Mr. Belden generally worked fast, but he lingered for years over the music for his 2003 Blue Note album, “Black Dahlia,” one of his best-known works. Inspired by the murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947, it was another suite-length work, written for jazz soloists and orchestra and inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the 1974 movie “Chinatown,” with recurring motifs and chords to connect with particular ideas and characters. It was also an attempt to connect jazz with larger themes and emotions, which Mr. Belden felt he was not hearing enough among younger players.
“Jazz does not reflect what’s going on in society at all,” he told JazzTimes magazine in 2000. “Because jazz musicians don’t make music that tells a story. And for the most part it’s because they don’t have a story to tell, except the story of long hours of practicing at Berklee.”
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