Courtesy of Bob Belden

Blue Note Records



Bob Belden is jazz's Spiderman (bet he's never been called that one). His Peter Parker, during the day life is as a producer bringing to life the work of Miles Davis for the reissue arm of Columbia Records, Legacy. His alter ego is as a saxophonist and he is an impressive one as evident by his performance on Tim Hagans' Audible Architechture. He sat down with the Roadshow from his home and we spoke candidly about his work with the before mentioned Hagans, his thoughts on Miles, and his take on Ken Burns' Jazz, as always unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

BOB BELDEN: When I was three years old, I just started mimicking my brother and sister's piano lessons. My brother played in a band in high school and I was in junior high school. He started playing in a marching band and I started playing in the junior high band on the saxophone. I went to North Texas State, basically, so I could get out of high school a year early. I got totally excited about jazz when I was at North Texas. Thousands of music majors and music students were at North Texas. They had fourteen big bands. They had a lot of jazz musicians and the record store was pretty current. You had a lot of musicians who were really into being musicians. And it was a great environment. It was just amazing. We had a library that was ridiculous. Plus, I was a composition major. I was not only getting jazz. I was getting contemporary classical music. I was studying orchestration, counterpoint, as well as jazz and I took jazz arranging. I was never a jazz major. I was a composition major.

FJ: What intrigued you about composition?

BOB BELDEN: You know, to be honest, Fred. I think the first time I really wrote something was, remember that group Chicago?

FJ: Peter Cetera is a staple in my home.

BOB BELDEN: Remember, but I think it was their second album. No, it was their first album. They had this like little chamber music in the middle (Chicago III), like the "Approaching Storm" and some little chamber pieces. And I remember my brother had it. They were just getting turned onto that. So this is like around '67, '68 and I remember writing a couple of pieces, like little small pieces, based on that music, those small little pieces that Chicago wrote. And I just really enjoyed it and so I did some improvising into a tape and I started doing marching band arrangements when I was in high school and then big band arrangements. I played in a youth band and actually, in high school, at one time, when music programs were encouraged, in my area alone, we had my high school band. We had a region band. We had a county band. We had honor band sponsored by one music store and some of those had jazz bands. I was able to go and sit in on anybody's instrument, in anybody's chair, in any of those groups and play the music, electric bass, guitar, timpani, trombone, tuba, clarinet, flute, saxophone. It was encouraged then. I went to a music camp when I was fifteen and I studied some orchestration there and the concert band played strictly music written for concert bands or classical transcriptions. So in 1967, '68, I was listening to a lot of classical music, some jazz, a lot of pop music, a lot of soul music. I was like twelve, thirteen years old.

FJ: Let's touch on your time with Donald Byrd.

BOB BELDEN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, Byrd is an interesting character because he comes from a rich family background, in terms of knowing what the deal is. His band with Pepper Adams was stunning. I have always been a fan of even the stuff with the Black Byrd. Byrd really never, I think Byrd's career is basically a couple of different parts. He was an up and coming guy in New York in the mid-to-late Fifties and by the early Sixties, his band was right up there with Miles in terms of sound and getting a quality sound. And Byrd told me that he used to sub for Miles when Miles would cancel. I think by '64, when he went to France and started studying and the jazz scene was changing for him, he went into teaching. And I have some of the early Black Byrd stuff, when they were in Montreux in 1970, '73, and they were playing hardcore. Byrd changed his direction in the late Sixties, but he was the first guy, like everybody was trying to crossover, but he was one of the first guys who really did it and managed to find a happy medium. I mean, the Black Byrd record is great. It's the Mizell brothers (Fonce and Larry) and Harvey Mason and Chuck Rainey. It is a real silent bass and that is like one of the best records of that thing, but that is what Miles always wanted to do. He wanted to get Donald Byrd's audience.

FJ: Is Donald Byrd's Ethiopian Knights, Street Lady, and Black Byrd days the cause for him being slighted critically and historically?

BOB BELDEN: Oh, totally, Fred. There has always been a vibe against the guy. There has always been a vibe against the guy and it is unfair. He is a very smart man, a very funny guy and he went through it before Freddie Hubbard went through this thing with the chops, having problems with your chops. The trumpet is not an easy instrument and when you are juxtaposing trumpet playing with teaching and with traveling and just being involved with things, sometimes, you just don't practice enough. I remember once playing a gig with Byrd. It was with my band in Houston, Texas, at some place just south of the Astrodome and needless to say, the audience was expecting the Black Byrds and they got the doves. But Byrd turned around to me and said, "Do you want to play a Jimmy Heath tune?" I said, "What?" And he said, "Gingerbread Boy," and so we started playing "Gingerbread Boy" and he turns around to me and says, "Now, I am going to play it like Miles," and he played it like Miles Davis in the mid-Sixties. I said, "Byrd, I am not going to bring it up ever again." And so it meant to me that he was aware of it because he was one of these guys that was hyper-intelligent and because of that, it defies the basic roots of jazz that you are a pimp, drug addict asshole.

FJ: Do you find in the same ways that Byrd was essentially discriminated against, so too are your recording efforts because they are not "in the pocket" and critically friendly?

BOB BELDEN: Well, I have no idea of any kind of criticism, Fred, because I really don't pay much attention to it. I have read some bad reviews, but sometimes with bad reviews, people say what is on their minds. Besides, I need to know who to hate (laughing). With the internet, you can find out where their grandmother's retired at. Yeah, I don't care because I am just amazed that I have gotten this far in this business as it is.

FJ: You are certainly capable of playing "in the pocket" as clearly evident on your work on Tim Hagans' Audible Architechture. Why don't you play more straight-ahead and appease the critics?

BOB BELDEN: Oh, well, let's see. I did a record on Sunnyside, two records on Sunnyside, which are kind of straight-ahead. I mean, I've got so much good stuff that these guys, they were living their music. They were living the thing. To me, I've always been able to differentiate between what is somebody else's stuff and what's mine. And Tim and I, we want to play more straight-ahead kind of stuff, but we don't want to record it and put it out because we have already crossed the path. We went with Animation and Re-Animation. We crossed that path. I mean, for me as a composer, I'm going to write music and it is going to contain straight-ahead, but it is going to contain some other stuff, classical music, soul music, the whole thing. I don't think anybody has made a real, I mean, there is a handful of really quality straight-ahead records and if you notice, it is generally by, I mean, Dave Holland's record comes to mind. That is straight-ahead. That is probably one of the best. And in the last five or six years, yeah, probably in the top five, but it is hard to find cats who play that way, that play really straight-ahead where the feel is the same. I work with Joe Chambers a lot. I did a film score and I had him play on the film score and it was just swinging. It was like the most beautiful glide and we were playing that kind of music because it was required by the film and that is the real deal. You get some other cat and it ain't the same.

FJ: Well, Joe is the real deal.

BOB BELDEN: If you look at things like the guy who is the real deal on sound, he is a unique kind of cat. I've worked with Jack (DeJohnette), Tony (Williams), and Joe Chambers and I think Joe is probably the least appreciated.

FJ: As an arranger, how do you go about taking Puccini's work and placing your own characteristics on compositions that have been recorded and rerecorded countless times?

BOB BELDEN: It's the melody.

FJ: Does that hold true with Prince and Sting?

BOB BELDEN: Well, with Sting, I went into, I got this recording deal based on having played a gig and Matt Pierson came up to me and to keep him informed if I had any ideas because he liked the band. It wasn't until October when I went to see Sting and Sting did an arrangement of "Ain't No Sunshine," and that got me thinking. He is obviously not opposed to rearranging somebody else's music, so I went back stage and I said, "I might do some arrangements of your music. I've got a band that plays every night and if you want to come by and sit in, you are more than welcome." I went home and fell asleep and woke up at like two in the morning and a light bulb goes off and I went to Matt Pierson the next day and got the deal, boom, like that. It was designed to take Sting's music and try to make it sound like Miles and Gil. The Sting record is kind of schizophrenic because the earlier sessions were really jazz oriented and then the second session, we did three sessions over like two and a half years, two years. The second session, I started bringing it in a little bit, but the third session was like we were trying to make a commercial song or two. And then the Prince record, there was one that came out in the United States called When Doves Cry. That was totally commercial. It was just an attempt to make a Stax/Motown kind of record. I had been doing these arrangements for a Japanese company, transcribing stuff on records. So I was like absorbing all of this pop orchestration stuff and I had these pop tunes that I could kind of reconstruct like turning "1999" into James Brown or turning "Diamonds and Pearls" into the Motown stuff from Marvin Gaye, like really over the top. So I was taking styles of arranging and taking songs and concepts, production concepts and then packaging it for that, but you didn't hear Prince Jazz did you?

FJ: No.

BOB BELDEN: You see, that's the thing. I did two records during those days. And Prince Jazz, one track is with Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, Mike Stern, Adam Holzman, and Ricky Patterson, and then there is two tunes with my band, which was Hagans, Kevin Hays, Jacky Terrasson, Rodney Holmes and Larry Grenadier, and Jimi Tunnell on guitar. Then I did a couple of tracks with the big band and then I did one long, kind of a free "Purple Rain" with Calderazzo and Kevin Hays. So I was able to take the Prince pop stuff and at the same time, recorded some other stuff. Plus, I recorded about an album of my own material. I recorded some of the Puccini stuff. Puccini was all about melodies and operas. I had written this album with the idea that you have a story and there is a continuation of this story. With Puccini, it was the story of the melodies linked up and they continued all the way through. It was incredibly dramatic opera, probably the last grand opera in that tradition ever composed. And Gil and Miles had wanted to do Tosca and I remember in a jazz magazine article in the Seventies, somebody went to his place and saw the score of Tosca, and I had asked Gil once, "Why did you guys not do Tosca?" And he goes, "There wasn't enough there." And I remember, having the score of Tosca, I looked in it and I know exactly what he was talking about.

FJ: What wasn't there?

BOB BELDEN: What wasn't there was developed melodies that went beyond eighteen and nineteen bars. There were like six or so melodies and that was pretty much it. There was a lot of dramatic music in there. Porgy and Bess, on the other had, had melodies and it had bridge music that was done in popular form and it was much more adaptable to the idea of rearranging it. But at the time, Gil was writing electronic music. He wasn't thinking or hearing woodwinds, which I thoroughly understand. What Gil's dilemma was that he did not want to rewrite his own stuff all the stuff. When you write acoustic music and you come out of this jazz world, you are faced with a lot of ghosts and footprints. Sometimes, you get just a little too close to the original thing, either your last record or somebody else's last record.

FJ: Congratulations on the Grammy nod for the Re-Animation project.

BOB BELDEN: Oh, thank you, Fred.

FJ: Contemporary Jazz is an odd category. Do the Grammys have to get with the times?

BOB BELDEN: Well, I have talked to some of the people on the committees and they say that the word contemporary jazz used to be where they put all the smooth jazz guys. Essentially, they re-looked at the definition of it and it incorporates modern jazz and popular music into jazz. We certainly do. This is dance music. It caused some ire last year when the smooth jazz guys were kind of upset about it. Again, the reality of it is is just the filling of the categories.

FJ: You don't want Kenny G coming after you.

BOB BELDEN: I would think Kenny G would be excited about competing against us because it would legitimize him. He would go, "Yeah, look at what they have me compared to." Even though we have our fingers down our throat.

FJ: You're no spring chicken, how did you come across techno?

BOB BELDEN: Guys would ask me, I've been asked that a bunch and the reality of it is that if you listen to drum and bass, you will hear this tempo that is up here and very fast. That's bebop. It's Charlie Parker. Remember acid jazz, Fred? Well, acid jazz never got up. It just stayed and plodded on one little groove for ever and ever. For a jazz musician, you can't play, if you come from that scene where you learn Trane and Bird, for a saxophone player and Miles and Dizzy and Woody Shaw, if you are a trumpet player, you can't just sit there and play blues licks. You want to play. You want to burn. Drum and bass took us into that tempo zone. When I hear it, I just hear Tony Williams. Tony Williams is what they all try to program. I sent Tim some CDs and said, "Check this stuff out." We're supposed to look for things to bring into jazz and we're supposed to look for things to bring jazz into. Jazz to me is an attitude. It is not anything that you can write down. It is like you can tell a jazz musician.

FJ: How?

BOB BELDEN: Because you will feel it. You will hear it in their music. You will feel it in the way they deal with the music, the way they talk about music.

FJ: Who epitomizes a jazz musician?

BOB BELDEN: Well, today, my friend, Joe Lovano. He is a jazz musician.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Tim Hagans.

BOB BELDEN: We worked together for a long time, since 1989. Well, first of all, we don't work that much and so we don't have the stress of gigs, which tends to cause band disfunction. We do most of our stuff in the studio. We communicate about musical ideas all the time. We just generally have fun. Everything is very humorous. It is the best of both worlds. He is a nice cat and he plays great.

FJ: You have been indispensable in assisting Columbia/Legacy with reissuing Miles Davis material. In all the material and music that you have had to sift through, what is the most striking thing about Miles that you have learned?

BOB BELDEN: Oh, a really, really, really sarcastic sense of humor. Oh, yeah. There are so many misconceptions about him based on the public's reality, but when you just deal with it on a musical level, you discover that he was very, very focused. In certain periods of times, he wasn't for personal reasons, but there was a time in his life when he was really focused on music, the time when he was with Gil and Trane and then when he was with Wayne.

FJ: Miles, like no other person in the history of this music, has a personality and aura that transcends the music itself. Will there ever be another Miles?

BOB BELDEN: No, because jazz is not mass media music. Miles was still involved with mass media at the time. You're talking like the major companies back then had tremendous influence on the press because they were the only game in town and Miles got national media exposure on a continuous basis. Nowadays, there is no focus on any particular person that will become that status.

FJ: Why do you feel those days will never return?

BOB BELDEN: Well, I think that the cost of living, Miles was born wealthy. Miles Davis could say no. Miles Davis could tell somebody to go shove it. Miles Davis could do things that most cats can't do today because he had money in the bank and when you have money in the bank, you can say what is on your mind. He didn't have to make a living from playing jazz and that gives you a totally different mindset.

FJ: Favorite Miles record?

BOB BELDEN: Filles de Kilimanjaro. It is just the closing of one door and the opening of another.

FJ: Let's talk about your soon to be released Black Dahlia.

BOB BELDEN: I wanted to survive the recording session because it is a lot of musicians in one day, a lot of money going down. The important thing for me, I had been working on that for three years.

FJ: Were you intimidated by the sheer scope of the project?

BOB BELDEN: No, no, I am used to that. I produced the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. I look my time on that project and in the middle of the project, I got really, really sick and I didn't think I would get through it and I recovered and I had all this incentive to finish the record. So what you hear in that record is somebody who went through a near death experience.

FJ: What happened?

BOB BELDEN: Oh, man, Fred, car wreck. Re-Animation was a month after the car wreck. If you look at the CD, you will see a chair and a bottle of water. I could only stand up to play solo. I was dehydrated from the trauma from an automobile accident. I came so close to buying the farm, but I didn't need the land (laughing).

FJ: Have you been watching Ken Burns' Jazz?

BOB BELDEN: Little snippets. For me, there is nothing new or insightful to be gleamed from it. All the video footage from the artists that I am interested in, I already have and I've seen all the still photos and I when I see, it is funny to talk about things that you weren't involved with or you weren't there, to see people fantasizing on film. One guy in particular, who I shall not single out, goes into these really, really weird fantasies about if Einstein and Coltrane were hanging out on the Left Bank. And there is a point where jazz, again to me, is an attitude. It is not a black and white film. And what I've seen of it, it looks nice. It is just there is too much talking, not enough walking.

FJ: Were you asked to consult on the project?

BOB BELDEN: I was involved with it a little bit. I saw the end of the credit where they were talking about Miles, the wife beater and Louis Armstrong had a hit with "Hello, Dolly," and I got a credit on there as a consultant or something like that because I identified some tunes for them and I worked on the single CD reissues that came out from Legacy, but as far as having any editorial thing, no, because what I am interested in, they don't cover. I think they talked about it for like five minutes. It is causing much debate, which is a big bummer because I have a record that is coming out and I don't want people talking about Ken Burns' Jazz when my record is all about somebody who did die.

FJ: There wasn't enough musical output from Miles, they had to find filler by referring to Miles as a perpetrator of domestic violence.

BOB BELDEN: They are just trying to demystify Miles. I mean, why don't they talk about Louis Armstrong, who was a big pothead, who had Nixon carry some reefer across our border. It is a cultural war. Ken Burns' Jazz, if you wanted to define elitism, that is it. It is not John Zorn at all. It is like this social context vibe, historical revisionism. It is not about the music. It is about photographs and voiceovers.

FJ: What peaks your interests now?

BOB BELDEN: Well, I made the mistake of checking out Ken Vandermark because Down Beat was writing so much about him and fortunately, they had a record up at the listening station and I am glad I saved my fifteen dollars. But some things do not interest me in the slightest and what I am interested in right now, at this moment, besides doing stuff with the catalogs is working with Tim and trying to get even further along the pike with what we started with Animation. We are trying to shape our sound that derives itself from a solid foundation, but involves today, modern technology, which is about today. Miles Davis once said, "You live in a modern house. You drive a modern car. You watch modern television. Why make music that is antiquated?"

FJ: Would Miles approve of what Wynton Marsalis is doing?

BOB BELDEN: Absolutely not. He would say, "What does he know? He wasn't there." That is the first thing he would say. Anybody who was around, ask them what they think about it. Go to the source.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief, and is a fan of 70s Miles. Email him.