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bill bell, musician and teacher (1937-2017)

Bill Bell, the “Jazz Professor,” died a few weeks ago and it has been circulating through Bay Area music circles. At SF Gate, you can read a fine obituary. It covers his amazing musical career performing with the Supremes and many jazz luminaries, as well as decades spent as a music teacher. In this post, I want to offer a more personal reflection. I studied with Bill Bell in 1996-1997 when I was a student at UC Berkeley. He left a deep impression on me.

At the time, I was a student at UC Berkeley and I decided to take some courses in jazz performance. I was fully aware of my meager abilities as a musician, but I just wanted to play more and learn about the craft. I signed up for this undergraduate course in jazz performance. I had already spent years in the UC Berkeley big bands and I thought it would be a natural thing to do.

Bill Bell was the first “dead serious” professor I had ever had. Of course, I had met many professors who were very accomplished. Most treated teaching as a sort of “add on.” They didn’t see their activity as a natural extension of what they did “for real,” even if they were good  teachers. Bill was the first instructor who was completely 100% invested in every single class he taught. He wanted every note that was played to be as beautiful in the class as it would be on stage.

This meant that he was very, very serious in class. I don’t mean his demeanor, which was mostly serious sprinkled with jokes. What I mean is that when he wanted you to play, he wanted not only technique. He wanted emotion and he wanted knowledge. And he wanted every student to absorb that. It was a profound realization of what made great music great. It wasn’t just getting the notes right. It was about bringing ideas and heart and technique together. It was about standing in front of a group of people and pulling it together.

For example, I remember one moment when he just lost it with a young man who was playing the piano. The guy didn’t get anything “wrong.” We were playing Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps,” a tune that is great for beginners because it is simple. Rather, this man had played in the most mechanical way. All the heart was gone. Listen to Shorter’s version – and you feel how he’s stretching and searching. Then listen to Miles Davis’ hectic version. This guy just made it flat.

Bill pointed to the floor and said, “Do you see that?” “What?” “It’s called a pedal. Put your foot on it and keep it there.” I think most teachers would have left it at that. But Bill went further. He asked the student, and the rest of the class, *why* jazz pianists use the piano’s sustain pedal so much. The student just stared back. He had no idea why.

“Impressionism.”

Bill then talked to the class about how the early jazz pianists had been trained at the end of the impressionist period. How jazz melded late 19th century approaches to harmony with African art forms. And how jazz is an emotional art form. It’s starts with Blues, fercryingoutloud.

“Have you heard of Debussy?”

Silence.

“I said, ‘Have you heard of Debussy?’ ”

“Sure.”

Bill sat down and played us some Debussy.* He showed the student how to make Debussy’s works suffused with longing by using the goddamn pedal. “Do that.” When we re-started with Footrpints, it was a different sound altogether. It was all about taking the technical and emotional knowledge that the student had and transferring it to jazz.

So let me finish with a few more comments about what Bill taught me. First, he was open to teaching just about anyone who showed up. I was horrible, but he helped me anyway.** He also helped people who were on verge of professional careers and he helped the middle aged doctor who showed up just because he wanted to try a new hobby. Second, he was a big believer in the real world as the best teacher. Most jazz instructors have you play a concert at school. Not Bill. Our final exam was held at an obscure bar in Oakland. At 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, we played blues for our friends and a bunch of barflies.

Finally, Bill taught me that this was serious. All of it. We are in this room together. Some of us may be advanced and some of us may beginners. But we are here right now and this is it. Bring everything you have, all your passion, all your knowledge and all your feeling and let’s play.

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* Yes, of course, Bill had Debussy and tons of other music completely memorized and he played it perfectly.

** How bad? I had such severe stage fright that when I played my first solo in class, I shook so bad that not a single note sang from the horn. Bill was patient. We just tried and tried and finally, I did it.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 27, 2017 at 12:02 am

Posted in uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Beautiful tribute. And an important lesson.

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    olderwoman

    April 27, 2017 at 1:06 pm

  2. That bar at which Prof. Bell held your final exam was not at all obscure among Cal English faculty members.

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    elizp

    April 27, 2017 at 2:39 pm

  3. Those barflies did have Penguin tote bags…

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 27, 2017 at 3:03 pm

  4. nice write-up fabio.

    Like

    anonymous

    April 27, 2017 at 7:06 pm


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