As he stood backstage at the concert hall in Tehran, Bob Belden and his band mates weren’t sure what awaited them. No American musician had performed in Iran since the country’s 1979 revolution.
“We thought: We’ll just walk in and see what happens,” Belden explained later.
But with diplomats at work on a potential nuclear deal and the prospect of years of crushing economic sanctions against the Middle Eastern country being lifted, the mood was buoyant and Belden said the crowd of 1,200 rose to its feet and gave the jazz musicians a standing ovation.
“You have made our dream come true,” Belden told the audience, according to a New York Times report on the February concert. “Visiting Iran has been such a human experience.”
James Robert Belden, 58, a saxophonist, composer and band leader, died Wednesday at Lenox Hills Hospital in Manhattan after suffering a heart attack in his apartment, his sister Elizabeth Belden Harmstone said. She described her brother as a pioneer and a “jazz musician true and true.”
Working with other musicians, he retooled the music of the Beatles, Sting and Prince into jazz and reached into the vaults to pay homage to innovators such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Belden said he recalled attending a Sting concert and then meeting the artist backstage, where he persuaded him to sit in on a recording session.
“It was designed to take Sting’s music and try to make it sound like Miles [Davis] and Gil [Evans],” Belden told Jazz Weekly.
Among Belden’s own compositions was a 12-song collection thematically linked to an imaginary film about the infamous Black Dahlia murder case in Hollywood in 1947. In a 2001 review, Times jazz critic Don Heckman said the composition “sets a standard for the use of jazz artists and jazz sensibility in expanded works.”
The 2001 Blue Note album “Black Dahlia” proved to be one of his most popular and enduring recordings.
Belden was born in Evansville, Ill.,on Oct. 31, 1956, and grew up in South Carolina. He settled in New York in the early 1980s after graduating from North Texas State University and touring for nearly two years with Woody Herman’s big band, the Thundering Herd.
Belden was known for conceiving and producing multi-artist thematic albums, including “Miles From India,” on which Indian and American musicians performed Miles Davis tunes, that received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2009. He followed that up with “Miles Espanol” which matched alumni of Davis’ band such as Chick Corea and Ron Carter with Spanish musicians.
Considered one of the leading experts on Davis, Belden won three Grammy Awards for his work in the 1990s on boxed sets of the trumpeter’s work for Sony/Columbia.
A saxophonist, Belden mixed electronica influences and jazz on the Grammy-nominated albums “Animation/Imagination” and “Re-Animation: LIVE!” with trumpeter Tim Hagans.
He played with trumpeters Donald Byrd and Red Rodney and also worked extensively in the studio scoring TV and film productions.
He made his recording debut as a leader with the 1989 album “Treasure Island” on the Sunnyside label. He then released a series of albums for Blue Note, also serving as the label’s director of A&R in the late ‘90s.