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Ellington bassist, pianist, educatorby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2003 Todd S. Jenkins
If Aaron Bell never gained the level of acclaim appropriate to his impressive résumé, he never lacked for good work opportunities, either. The vibrant bassist's employers during his six-decade career included Andy Kirk, Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton and many other prominent figures in jazz. But perhaps his most rewarding time was spent with Duke Ellington between 1960 and '62, a short period that produced over a dozen albums and forever impacted Bell's musical career.
Bell learned to play piano at his mother's side, performed on brass in high school, and took up the bass while attending New Orleans' historically black and Catholic Xavier University. Bell graduated shortly before he was called into the Navy in 1942. Following his four-year tenure he joined Andy Kirk's band. The job only lasted one year before Bell jumped ship in New York to continue his education at NYU. Then, Master's degree in hand, Bell toured with Lucky Millinder during the bandleader's twilight to build up his reputation. After Millinder broke up his band, Bell's first regular club gig was with Teddy Wilson's quartet.
Bell's profile increased throughout the 1950s, bringing him work with Billie Holiday (including her last great album, "Lady Sings the Blues") and Lester Young, who encouraged Bell to step out for solo breaks. A brief stint with Cab Calloway was followed by a few years of trio work, including Bell's own unit ("Three Swinging Bells", 1955, on the Herald label). Bell also backed singers like Carmen McRae and swing-era veteran Dick Haymes, with whom the bassist was employed when Ellington came calling.
At first reluctant to leave Haymes, Bell finally acquiesced and joined Duke's band in April 1960. For the next two years the bassist was constantly busy, churning out concerts and recordings with Ellington at a fearsome pace: "The Nutcracker Suite", "Jungle Triangle", "Piano in the Background", "Peer Gynt Suite/Suite Thursday", "Midnight in Paris", and more. Bell immersed himself in the Ellington aesthetic during those two brief years and professed to have learned more during that time than in any school. His partnership with drummer Sam Woodyard was one of Duke's best-ever rhythm combinations.
Following his departure from Ellington in 1962, Bell worked briefly with Dizzy Gillespie and then moved into Broadway pit work. His first taste of the Great White Way had come in the pit band of "Compulsion" in 1959, and Bell spent the next decade working in various shows. He did return to Duke one more time, however, to take part in the 1967 Billy Strayhorn tribute "... And His Mother Called Him Bill". Johnny Hodges also employed the bassist from time to time.
From 1969 to '72 Bell was a composer-in-residence at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village, and in 1970 he began a twenty-year term as a music instructor at Newark's Essex College. In the late 1970s Bell reunited with some of his former Ellington bandmates, touring and recording with Norris Turney, Harold Ashby, and Cat Anderson ("Plays W.C. Handy", 1978). In the 80s Bell returned to his first instrument, the piano, which soon surpassed the bass as his principal instrument.
Bell composed his "Memorial Suite for Duke" and conducted it at St. Peter's Lutheran Church at a 1983 celebration of Ellington's birthday. Two years later, his "Cotton Club Gala" was performed at La MaMa. Bell frequently gave lectures and interviews, most of which focused on Ellington and rarely made mention of his other accomplishments. After touring with Clark Terry in 1989, Bell retired as a performer for the most part. In 1999 he appeared in Jazz @ Lincoln Center's "Ellington Centennial" celebration with alumni like Harold Ashby, Joya Sherrill and Jimmy Woode, whom Bell had originally replaced in Duke's band.
Bell passed away at the Bronx' Calvary Hospital on July 28, 2003, at the age of 82. He is survived by his wife DeLores, three sons, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.^ Top
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.