Visionary saxophonist, composer, Miles Davis scholar and videographer Bob Belden died suddenly on Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack in his Upper West Side apartment. He was 58.
Belden’s often turbulent career encompassed just about everything an individual can do in music. He was a distinctive composer, a talented saxophonist, arranger, conductor, producer and music executive. His brief tenure as head of A&R at Blue Note Records in the late 90s ended after less than a year in a disagreement over the direction of the label: Belden wanted to promote new music while his corporate colleagues wanted to focus on easy-listening and more retro styles. Since then, he had led the cinematic instrumental band Animation, with whom he had just played earlier this year in Iran, the first American musician to perform there since the 1970s.
Born in Illinois, raised in South Carolina and educated in Texas, Belden came to New York in the late 70s and quickly found a home on the Upper West Side. The diverse, multi-ethnic character of the neighborhood – and the dangers lurking there after dark – had a profound impact on his worldview and his music. Belden’s vividly cinematic compositions are rich with history and political overtones, global in scope, often imbued with a noir sensibility. Much of his work draws heavily on classical and Indian music. While his best-known album is the 2001 orchestral jazz suite The Black Dahlia – a moody, 1950s style crime jazz score inspired by the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short – his most powerful album was his final one, Animation’s sweeping, anguished 2012 release Transparent Heart, a bitter look back at the aftermath of 9/11 in New York
Belden was also one of the world’s foremost Miles Davis scholars. He found considerable irony in winning three Grammies, but not for his music: those were for liner notes and post-production work on Miles Davis compilations and reissues. An acerbic writer with a sardonic sense of humor, Belden didn’t suffer fools gladly. As he saw it, other musicians failed to address contemporary concerns and were unable to put their work in the context of our times, something that Belden himself never failed to do.
His progressive politics mirrored the qualities in his music. He was always looking to draw attention to injustice, especially as it affected his adopted New York home. Although he could be cynical and blunt to the point of confrontation – something he relished – he tempered that with a self-effacing sense of humor. And he dedicated himself to passing his legacy to the next generation of musicians: his bandmates in the final edition of Animation were all about half his age.
Beyond music, Belden had considerable talent as a photographer and videographer, inspired by the film noir that he loved so much. This blog reviewed Belden’s final New York concert – at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center last month, he and Animation reinvented a suite of Miles Davis songs to the point of unrecognizability, giving them a persistent, propulsive, restlessly enveloping sweep reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s film scores. The concert was performed to projections of Belden’s own symbolically-charged, Sam Fuller-inspired black-and-white video, which he’d taken on a blustery night last summer, from Times Square to the lower reaches of Harlem.
In an interview onstage before the show, Belden reveled in reliving his experiences in Iran and was looking forward to returning there: he leaves a wealth of plans unfinished along with a deep body of work. Sincerest sympathies to his family and many, many friends.