Aaron Bell

Bass player with Duke Ellington
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The Independent Online

Samuel Aaron Bell, bassist, pianist and composer: born Muskogee, Oklahoma 24 April 1922; married (three sons, two daughters); died New York 28 July 2003.

Aaron Bell was perhaps the least known of Duke Ellington's bass players, but he was certainly one of the best and with the band - in 1960-62 - during one of Ellington's most productive periods.

Thus Bell is heard at his most telling in Ellington's lengthy versions of the Nutcracker and Peer Gynt suites. On the face of it Tchaikovsky's and Grieg's masterpieces might have been best left alone by a jazz orchestra, but Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn managed to rework the material in a way that was relevant, charming and respectful to both composers.

Bell was also the pivot for the first and only recording sessions that Ellington had with the tenor saxophone player Coleman Hawkins (in August 1962) and the avant-garde saxophonist John Coltrane (September 1962). The ease with which Ellington accommodated Coltrane showed that the maestro had nothing to learn from the new "free form" players of the time.

"When I was with Duke," said Bell,

I learned an awful lot. I had four degrees, but I always tell anyone that I learned more at the School of Ellington than at any of the other schools.

Bell's mother was a piano teacher and taught him to play. He switched to brass instruments while in high school and then, when studying at Xavier University in New Orleans, to double bass. He played with several bands in the city and gained his BA in music before eventually being called into the US Navy in 1942. Four years of playing in navy bands culminated in his joining Andy Kirk's band in 1946. He toured with Kirk for a year and left while the band was in New York to finish his education at New York University, where he picked up his Master of Arts degree.

He toured with Lucky Millinder's band for two years in the early Fifties until he was able to get a regular job in New York, playing in the pianist Teddy Wilson's quartet with Buck Clayton at the Embers. He worked concurrently for several leaders, including the pianists Dorothy Donegan and Eddie Heywood. More significantly he toured for two years with the tenor player Lester "Prez" Young where the pianist was John Lewis.

"It was with Prez that I first got nerve enough to take a solo," he recalled:

He'd say, "Go ahead and take it, Professor." He called me that because he knew about my studies.

Offered more money, he joined Cab Calloway's band, but the band broke up six months later when Calloway took up his famed role as Sportin' Life on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. Bell found work in the trios of Herman Chittison and Billy Taylor, and led his own trio, with which he recorded in 1955 and 1958. He backed Carmen McRae in 1959 and worked in the Broadway show Compulsion.

When Ellington first approached him, he turned him down because he had a job with the singer Dick Haymes. But Ellington persisted and Bell joined him in April 1960. With the drummer Sam Woodyard, they formed one of the most effective rhythm sections that the band ever had. With Ellington he appeared in the film Duke Ellington and his Orchestra (1962) and on leaving Ellington in The Cool World (1963) as a member of Dizzy Gillespie's band.

For the next 10 years he worked in Broadway pit bands and began teaching at Essex College in Newark, New Jersey, from 1970. He continued to work at the college until the early Nineties, becoming chairman of its performing arts department in 1977. He served as composer in residence at La Mama, an experimental theatre in New York, from 1969 to 1972.

Never short of work, Bell came to Europe in 1978 with two ex-Ellington saxophone players, Norris Turney and Harold Ashby. The next year he came back in an Ellington alumni band led by the trumpeter Cat Anderson. He played in Europe once more with Clark Terry's Spacemen in 1989.

Bell took up the piano again, and in later years played the instrument more often than the bass and also developed his composing activities.

In 1983 he celebrated the anniversary of Ellington's birth (Ellington died in 1974) with a concert at St Peter's Lutheran Church in Manhattan. For this he assembled a 14-piece band to play his Memorial Suite for Duke.

Over the years Bell had recorded with Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Rushing and Lester Young, amongst many others.

Steve Voce