I don’t hang out with musicians, not because I don’t like them, but because I do. When you want to ethically edit a music publication, having fond personal relationships with artists presents a liability. It’s more difficult to assign or write genuine criticism and probing features when you know that the musician in question is a kind, thoughtful person, as most jazz players tend to be. That said, it can be journalistically beneficial to entertain a choice friendship or two, in order to better experience how these folks whose work you obsess over actually live. And other musicians have such outsized personalities they can’t be avoided or ignored. One of those was the multi-hyphenate jazzman Bob Belden, who died in May at age 58, following a heart attack he’d suffered a few days earlier. After reading the beautiful tribute piece that appears in this issue’s “In Memory Of” feature, by Bob’s longtime neighbor and collaborator Tim Ries, I wouldn’t dare say I was “friends” with Bob. But we certainly were friend-ly, and I enjoyed seeing and chatting with him whenever I got the chance. A lot of people did, because Bob was an absolute character, and there aren’t too many of those left in jazz culture, where politeness and bookishness currently rule.
A typical conversation with Bob was more like a hot, smart 10 minutes of improvised stand-up. It might start with a hipster pleasantry or two, then dive headlong into anecdotes worthy of a memoir; merciless, hysterically funny trash talk; and wild theories about jazz history that weren’t conspiratorial at all-they were secret narratives tracing the undeniable influence of the underworld. (If Bob had my job, JT would have gotten sued every other month. It would also have been a hell of a lot of fun to read.) Simply put, I miss him, and I didn’t really even know him. When he greeted me with, “My man,” he made me feel cool; when he told stories that began, “That’s the problem with jazz-it’s not run with drug money anymore,” he made me laugh, and think. There was a touching program honoring Bob’s life and music in Greenwich Village in November, hosted by producer Michael Cuscuna and featuring Ries and a score of musicians who played with and for him. As with any well-planned tribute event, you could sense the departed’s presence in the room. But as I felt it, Bob wasn’t onstage or, as the self-comforting clichés go, smiling down on all his old pals. He was standing at the back bar, tossing quips, talking story and pulling no punches.