Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.
I met Bob on an extremely hot day in late August 1977, in Denton, Texas. It was my first year at North Texas State, now called the University of North Texas. I drove down from my home state of Michigan, farther south and west than I had ever been, and arrived in 100-degree weather. Upon pulling up to my dorm, my car caught fire and I was without wheels. I was basically in shock. Why did I come here? Texas? Really?
I went because of the world-famous One O’Clock Lab Band, and I wanted to see the first rehearsal. At that time all the big bands rehearsed in a cafeteria-no air conditioning, only two large fans blowing hot air around. But the band sounded amazing. Musicians from all over the world went to North Texas with the dream of one day playing in that prestigious band.
Bob Belden was playing tenor saxophone in the band. So like any good student of the music, and someone who was determined to play in that band one day too, I thought it’d be wise to meet the tenor player and take a lesson. Right?
The next day I was walking across the Chilton Hall courtyard and Bob Belden was walking toward me. It was just Bob and me, a perfect opportunity. I approached this tall character with long curly hair and said, “Excuse me, my name is Tim Ries and I just arrived from Michigan and play the tenor sax and I would like to take a lesson with you. Do you have any time?” At that point, without breaking stride, Bob made a kind of swimming-in-the-air motion and said, “You’ll have to catch me sometime when I’m not treading water.” He kept walking. It was funny then, and I laugh when I think of it now. So, lesson number one: Don’t approach Bob again-at least not until I get my act together.
A few years later, after I was fortunate enough to play in the One O’Clock, I moved back to Michigan for a while, with the goal of saving enough money to move to New York. I was eventually offered an apartment on the Upper West Side at 175 W. 87th St. I called Bob and asked if he knew the area. Bob said, “It’s at the end of my block. It’s a great neighborhood.” I took the apartment.
I moved there in August 1985. From my first day on the block, it was clear that Bob was kind of like the mayor. He knew most of the people in the neighborhood, and most folks said hello when he walked down the street. He knew the cheap places to eat, and we ate breakfast and lunch together pretty much every day for the decade I lived there. Between breakfast and lunch we’d go back to his tiny apartment and check out sides. He had every Blue Note record, not to mention most Columbia and Impulse!, and many bootleg tapes. We listened to so much music.
Bob employed many people, and he helped me financially often. Of course there were the Sunnyside and Blue Note recording sessions that were great. Early on, he booked his little big band all over NYC and even on some road tours through the U.S. and beyond. We went to the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival and played for tens of thousands of people. I got to solo on “Little Sunflower” standing next to Freddie Hubbard. (Thanks, Bob.) For many years Bob worked at a studio that did music for a really high level of karaoke. I hate karaoke, but we did tons of music, from Sinatra to rock. I did a lot of sessions for Bob over the years, and he got many of his friends to do them. Great players. We had fun and got paid the day of the session. (Thanks, Bob.)
Being a musician is not easy. It’s not the music part that gets you-we all love that-it’s the business of music, the not-music stuff. Bob, like many of us, had to deal with a lot of not-so-cool tactics by the powers that be. When Bob’s health was really bad, he would call me and say, “Man, I don’t think I’m going to make it through this year,” and he had little money coming in. I was baffled as to how someone like Bob, at his level, with all he had done, would have to struggle at this point in his life. We really need to watch out for our brothers and sisters, especially those, like Bob, who did so much for so many people.
I will leave you with this. I have some very significant dreams, but I sometimes have dreams that are really beautiful. And before Bob died, after his historic trip to Iran, where he led the first American band to perform there in over three decades, I had a vivid dream about him. Before he left for Iran, he called and emailed and texted me about going. Then, when he returned, he was so positive about the experience he couldn’t stop talking about it. So one night I had this dream. Bob was in the middle of a room full of people, and he was alone on a small, circular stage. Everyone was standing around Bob, who was playing the soprano sax. He looked about 20. Full head of curly hair. He looked really fit, really healthy, and he was playing so incredibly, with the precision of a concert pianist, articulate and clear. I thought in my dream, “Man, Bob is totally together. He has never sounded so good.” And I woke up thinking that Bob is in a really good place.
Bob will have a lasting impact and positive influence on music, people and even the political landscape for many years to come. Thank you, Bob, mayor of W. 87th St. I miss having rice and beans with you, and everything else.
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