“Kelvyn was one of the people who had gotten me seriously into music.”
- Anthony Kiedis, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers/Scar Tissue
“(Kelvyn Bell) a tireless innovator in the hard-driving music of New York’s jazz-rock-funk scene.”
- Rickey Vincent / FUNK: The MUSIC, the PEOPLE, and the RHYTHM of THE ONE
It wasn’t long after guitarist Kelvyn Bell moved to New York City from St. Louis in the late 1970s that he began attracting attention. Touring and recording with one of saxophonist Arthur Blythe’s most provocative ensembles, he was soon recognized as a true innovator successfully expressing himself in a style that embodies funk, jazz, blues, energy, improvisation and rhythm. He’s continued to work regularly with Blythe since 1978, along with leading his own band, Kelvynator, and collaborating with trombonist/vocalist Joseph Bowie in the New York based jazz-funk band Defunkt. While Bell is most known for these associations, he also cites his first European tour with acclaimed avant garde drummer Charles “Bobo” Shaw as a very pivotal experience.
By the time Bell formed Kelvynator in 1984, he had absorbed elements of the avant garde from Shaw, progressive creative concepts from Blythe and the modern essence of funk from his work with Defunkt. In describing the impact these experiences had on forming the concept of his own band, Bell refers to the James “Blood” Ulmer saying, “Jazz is the teacher. Funk is the preacher.” As he tells the story of Kelvynator’s development he asserts,”Arthur Blythe was my jazz teacher, Defunkt was the preacher, and Kelvynator is my own church.”
With Kelvynator, Bell was on a mission to deliver exotic, sophisticated rhythms while still being commercially viable. And when the band made it’s New York debut in the summer of ’84, New York Times critic Jon Pareles hailed it as “explosive” and credited Bell for putting together “a funk band to play dance music…that isn’t over simplified.” In addition to releasing five records since 1985, Kelvynator has served as rhythm section for Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis’ JB Horns while occasionally opening shows for Living Colour and James Brown.
During this same time period, Bell was instrumental in shaping the M-base (a concept of how to create modern music) spearheaded by alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. As a member of Coleman’s original Five Elements (which also included Cassandra Wilson, Geri Allen and Marvin “Smitty” Smith) he appeared on two recordings contributing a composition to each.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Bell had the advantage of being raised in a rich musical environment that traveled up and down the Mississippi River from New Orleans – a musical environment that produced important native sons like W.C. Handy, Clark Terry, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, and Nelly. He took up music at age 12, and played in his high school marching band as his four older brothers did before him.
After noted reedman Oliver Lake gave Bell his first guitar lesson, he spent his teens sneaking into the jazz and blues clubs that made up St. Louis’ prolific live music scene. Then, upon establishing a dance band at age 15, Bell secured his own opportunities to play in St. Louis. Through his connection with Lake he also performed with members of BAG (Black Artist Group), the St. Louis equivalent of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) which included Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, Lester and Joseph Bowie among others.
Starting in 1986, Kelvyn became an important contributor to the production roster of New York City’s Black Rock Coalition, serving both on the Executive Committe and as musical director and featured soloist for several BRC Orchestra events including tributes to Jimi Hendrix at Town Hall and Sonny Sharrock at Central Park Summerstage which also starred Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Dave Fiuczynski (Screaming Headless Torsos), Cindy Blackman (Lenny Kravitz & Carlos Santana) and Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic).
Bell has also conducted BRC programs honoring Marvin Gaye at Brooklyn Academy of Music with The Family Stand and Corey Glover (Living Colour); the Blaxploitation Songbook (part of the 20th Annual Celebration of the Brooklyn Performing Arts Festival) featuring Nona Hendryx, Dean Bowman, Sekou Sundiata, Sandra St. Victor, and an 18-piece string ensemble. Other notable projects include The New York Organ Ensemble lead by trumpeter Lester Bowie (Art Ensemble of Chicago & Brass Fantasy), and Craig Harris’ groups: Tailgaters Tales and Nation of Imagination.
In 1998 Bell began collaborations with poet/writer Quincy Troupe (co-author of Miles, The Autobiography and The Pursuit of Happyness) writing music to Troupe’s poems and performing together in New York and Europe. The following year Bell joined forces with saxophonist James Carter and toured the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Azores Islands. This ensemble included Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Calvin Weston, D.D. Jackson and Craig Taborn. Winner of The 2009 Audelco Award for Outstanding Musical Direction for Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, Kelvyn Bell continues to make his mark on the New York, U.S. and international music worlds. The Composer-in-Residence for The Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) since 2002, Bell has written original music and arrangements for their productions of Black Nativity (Nominated for Audelco Award Outstanding Musical Direction 2008, Drama Desk Outsanding Musical Revival 2008), Trojan Women, Marat/ Sade, Macbeth, King Lear and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Winner Adelco Award Dramatic Production of the Year 2003).
Having studied music theory at The University of Missouri –Columbia and classical guitar at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville from 1974 to 1978, Bell extends his performing experience into arts education serving as Director of The Harlem School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble from 1995 to 2007 and Music Department Director from 2005 to 2007, sharing over 30 years in the music business with young artist ages 6 to 68. Mr. Bell was responsible for the continued developement of various ensembles including Senior and Junior Jazz Ensembles, Flute Choir, Saxophone and Clarinet Ensembles, String Orchestra, String Quartet, Flute Quartet, 4 different Youth Choruses and varous soloists.