Even though Bill Bell retired in 2001 after 31 years at the College of Alameda — the last 20 as chairman of the music department — lessons he taught there, as well as privately and at UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and Stanford University, continue to inform the world of jazz. Among the nationally prominent jazz players who’ve benefited from the pianist’s deep knowledge of the idiom are trumpeter Jon Faddis and pianists Benny Green and Michael Wolff. Gospel great Daryl Coley also studied with Bell.
Other former students — trumpeter Geechie Taylor, saxophonists Dave Ellis and Anton Schwartz, pianist Glen Pearson and bassist David Daniels — will join Bell as guests when he celebrates his 74th birthday at 8 p.m. on Monday, July 12, at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Bell also will be performing with his Jazz Connections Quintet made up of saxophonist Charles McNeal, guitarist Brad Buethe, bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Deszon Claiborne.
The East Moline, Illinois-born, El Sobrante-based pianist has adjusted well to retirement . “I can devote more time and energy to performing,” he says. “I’ve done a couple CDs, which are really helping me as far as centering my playing. It’s wonderful to finally be a full-time musician.”
Bell has worked over the years with such jazz instrumentalist as Benny Carter and Buddy Montgomery and trained the chorus for Duke Ellington’s 1967 “Sacred Concert” at the Oakland Auditorium. He also directed the choir at Downs Memorial Methodist Church for 47 years and currently directs the Oakland Bay Area Community Chorus, a 45-voice ensemble that specializes in spirituals and traditional choral music.
He is especially valued by jazz vocalists for his sensitive piano accompaniment. Those he’s worked with include Al Jarreau, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Joe Williams and Robin Gregory. “You have to really think about creating a background for the singer, rather than playing for yourself,” he explains. “You’ve got to think about the complete picture as far as what the bass player is doing, what the drummer is doing and then what you should do to complement that background. Otherwise it becomes a competition, rather than something that is viable. I think my experience as a big-band director really enters into that area of skill.”
The pianist’s association with Jarreau dates to the early 1960s, when the then-unknown singer and Bell were working with drummer Joe Abodeely at the Tender Trap, a club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After earning his master’s degree in music education from the University of Iowa, Bell moved to Oakland in 1963. Jarreau soon followed, living with Bell and his uncle for a period before getting his own apartment in San Francisco and hooking up with then-local pianist George Duke.
Bell has not abandoned teaching entirely, however. On three consecutive Tuesdays, August 3, 10 and 17, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Bell with offer free jazz appreciation classes using recordings and live demonstration at Berkeley’s Central Library, 2090 Kittredge near Shattuck.
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