I first met saxophonist Bob Belden when he joined Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd in 1979, replacing Joe Lovano. He was recruited out of North Texas State, like a lot of young musicians joining big bands on the road at that time. He loved Wayne Shorter and was influenced by his playing in a very deep way. With Frank Tiberi coming out of John Coltrane and Bob coming out of Wayne Shorter, the saxophone section sounded like the history of post-bop modern tenor saxophonists.
He was also a supreme practical joker at that time. I used to read a lot of thrillers by Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth on our long bus rides across the United States. He would rip out the last five pages of the book and watch with great pleasure from his seat in the back of the bus as I swore with disbelief. Once out of sheer boredom on the road, he got the bright idea of filling up a plastic trash can halfway with water and leaning it against the door of an unsuspecting band member, knocking on the door and running away. When they opened the door, the can would fall into the room and flood the floor. Of course once he started it, everyone got into the act and we inadvertently flooded the hotel, with water coming through the ceiling into other peoples’ rooms. Needless to say, Woody Herman was less than pleased with our juvenile behavior (although I’m sure he’d seen far worse) and we had to pay for the damages out of our salary. Fun on the road.
After Belden and I both left the band and moved to New York City, we remained close friends. He wrote the music for three of my Criss Cross recordings: Saxophone Mosaic, Gary Smulyan with Strings, and Blue Suite, which featured an original seven-movement suite, composed by Bob for a large brass ensemble.
There was nothing he couldn’t do. Bob possessed a musical mind with unlimited creative power and a supreme intellect. He was also an extremely disciplined and fast worker. He wrote some of his best music sitting in front of the TV, watching re-runs of shows like Gilligan’s Island.
He was continually pushing the boundaries and earlier this year became the first American musician to play in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. The 1,200-seat theater in Tehran was filled to capacity with clapping and cheering Iranians who got to hear music by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and originals by Bob himself. The reception was warm and enthusiastic, and Bob was the perfect choice for this cultural exchange as he represented everything beautiful about music. He joins the pantheon of other jazz ambassadors on missions of good will around the world like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman.
The tragedy of his death in May is that it robs us of all the music left unwritten—he was only 58. The world will never see the likes of another Bob Belden again. He was a true original in every sense of the word.