William Bell, Bay Area pianist known as Jazz Professor, dies
By Aidin Vaziri
Photo: Courtesy Of The Artist
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William Bell was the College of Alameda’s music department chair for 32 years.
To his fans, friends and students, William “Bill” Bell was known simply as the Jazz Professor. The acclaimed Bay Area pianist, who worked tirelessly as a performer and music educator at several major Bay Area institutions, died last month at his home in the East Bay. He was 80.
The cause was heart failure, according to his family.
During a lengthy career, Mr. Bell served as music director for jazz singer Carmen McRae, played piano for the Supremes and led the group the Jazz Connection. He appeared on recordings by Joe Henderson, John Handy and Cannonball Adderley; and mentored musicians such as pianist Benny Green, trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Will Kennedy.
Mr. Bell worked as a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, University of San Francisco and Berkeley Jazz School. He served as the director of the Stanford University Jazz Band and was adjunct professor of jazz at UC Berkeley. For 32 years, he was chairman of the music department at the College of Alameda.
“With talented people, if you can get them inspired enough to love something, they will take it the rest of the way,” he said in an interview with Jazz Now magazine in 1995, the same year he released “The Jazz Professor,” from which he took his nickname. The album included a tribute to his son David, who died of heart failure in 1991.
“The Jazz Professor” was among a handful of albums Mr. Bell released throughout his career.
Mr. Bell was born July 12, 1936, in East Moline, Ill., the oldest of five children. He was born into a musical family; his mother was a pianist and his uncle played trumpet in a band led by Cab Calloway.
At age 5, Mr. Bell could play piano by ear. He started formal training in classical piano the next year, and by the age of 11, he moved on to jazz and popular piano, performing in his high school band.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and a master of arts from the University of Iowa.
He moved his family to the Bay Area in 1963 and took a job teaching junior high band and orchestra for the Oakland public schools, a position he held for five years. Mr. Bell also performed in local clubs with a variety of jazz combos during that time and recorded “The Nifty Cat Strikes West” with the Roy Eldridge Sextet.
Taking a brief leave of absence, he toured as the musical director for McCrae. He also worked as the rehearsal pianist with the Supremes.
By 1971, he recorded his first album, “Basically Bill Bell,” and he and his family returned to the Bay Area, where he became a music instructor at the College of Alameda. He eventually would become the head of the school’s music department.
He concurrently began providing commissioned works for the San Francisco Symphony and the Oakland Youth Symphony. He also founded and served as director of the Oakland Bay Area Community Chorus.
“The discipline that one needs to acquire for jazz is the same discipline that one should try to acquire as a classically oriented musician,” Mr. Bell said in the Jazz Now interview. “I say that because you really need to know the instrument, whatever it is that you play.”
Mr. Bell released two more albums, “Just Swing Baby,” in 2003, and “The Feeling of Jazz,” in 2009.
He was the recipient of the SFJazz Beacon Award in 2005 in recognition for his life’s work.
Mr. Bell, who died March 18, is survived by his wife, Gale Bell; a daughter, Debbie Bell-Cole; and a son, Thomas.
Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop music critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MusicSF