Bob Belden, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, bandleader, label executive, historian and writer, died 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.
James Robert Belden was born in Evanston, Ill., Oct. 31, 1956, and grew up in Goose Creek, S.C., where he became interested in jazz in his youth, performing in his high school band. He studied saxophone and composition in the 1970s at North Texas State University (where he was a member of the One O’Clock Lab Band) and the University of South Carolina and joined Woody Herman’s orchestra upon graduating in 1978.
In 1983, Belden moved to New York, working as a sideman for artists such as Donald Byrd and Mel Lewis, while also scoring films and television programs. He was a staff arranger for ESPN from 1984-88. Belden’s production work took off in the late ’80s-he produced two albums for trumpeter Red Rodney-and he also began recording under his own name at that time, for Blue Note, Sunnyside and other labels (Blue Note made him director of A&R in the late ’90s).
Belden’s 2001 Blue Note release Black Dahlia reportedly became one of the biggest-selling non-vocal orchestral albums of its era. The album featured a 12-part orchestra paying tribute to the late actress Elizabeth Short. Belden’s orchestrated treatment of Puccini’s opera Turandot was reportedly suppressed by the composer’s estate and issued only in Japan.
Beginning in the late ’90s, Belden led ANIMATION, originally alongside Tim Hagans. The most recent edition of the group, led solely by Belden, featured young musicians he hired from the University of North Texas. Early this year, he arranged for the band to perform in Iran, the first time in 35 years that an American music ensemble had been allowed to work in the country. Our report on the historical journey can be read here.
In the early 2000s, Belden teamed up with producer Michael Cuscuna at Sony on compiling a series of exhaustive box sets collecting Columbia Records’ Miles Davis output (including many of the individual album), as well as reissue projects on Hancock, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Charles Mingus, Weather Report, Jan Hammer, Jimmy Smith, Thelonious Monk, Maynard Ferguson, Cannonball Adderley and others.
As a sideman and session musician, he worked over the years with such artists as Hancock, Byrd, Tyner, Sting, Chaka Kahn, Joe Zawinul, Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Cassandra Wilson, Chick Corea, Diane Reeves, Wallace Roney, Ron Carter, Gary Peacock and Tony Williams.
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.