Bill Honaker recalled nationally renowned jazz drummer Ronnie Bedford as a gentle man who became a wild man behind the drums.
Bedford died Saturday at the age of 83. His last performance was during Happy Hour at the Powell Valley Care Center in Wyoming.
Honaker, owner of Walker’s Grill and Tapas Bar, hosted an 80th birthday party for Bedford at the downtown Billings restaurant in June 2011. Walker’s was a favorite spot of Bedford’s, and he played there often over the past 20 years, starting out at the old Walker’s Grill location on Third Avenue North. Bedford’s 2010 show at the Sunday jazz show drew the club’s largest crowd ever.
“If Ronnie called, you dropped what you were doing and got a show together,” Honaker said. “He’d always call me up and say, ‘Hey Billy, I’m putting something together.’ For his 80th, we had all the cats who played with him over the years come join him.”
Among the younger generation of musicians influenced by Bedford were Billings players like guitarist Alex Nauman and bassist Parker Brown.
Brown said Bedford became his mentor when the two met in 2007 and started playing together. In 2009, Bedford, Brown and Nauman performed at Grace Montessori, inspiring yet another generation of young people.
Nauman said the first time he saw Bedford perform was when Nauman was in middle school in Basin, Wyo. Nauman and his father drove to Powell to see Bedford play at Northwest College, where Bedford taught percussion for many years.
“He may have been one of the first influences I ever had,” Nauman said. “He would always bring out the best musicians from New York to play.”
Bedford’s first professional appearance was at age 16 in his native Connecticut. Bedford served in the U.S. Army and played most of his career in New York and New Jersey. He toured the U.S. and Europe with jazz greats Benny Goodman, Benny Carter and hundreds of others. Bedford once played a huge show in Central Park with the Benny Goodman Quintet and also performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
In 1980, Bedford and his wife, Janet, took a vacation to Wyoming, marveling at the slower pace of life and beauty of Wyoming.
After several more visits, they moved to Powell in 1987 when Bedford was hired to teach at Northwest College. He served for 25 years as a percussion teacher and helped found the Yellowstone Jazz Festival. Bedford also earned the Governor’s Award for the Arts for promoting jazz throughout the region.
“He has influenced three generations of musicians,” Honaker said. “There are a whole bunch of people who make music, but not a lot of them want to pass it on.”
Billings drummer Matt Devitt said Bedford played with a lot of "A-listers," but beyond that he brought such passion to his music, you could feel.
"He brought a lot of joy to the music. It was apparent that he enjoyed what he did," Devitt said.
Bedford is survived by Janet, his wife of 35 years, and children Georgia Schwartz and Jason Bedford. A public celebration of his life and music will be announced at a later date.
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