RACINE — On Tuesday, the night before Tim Bell died, he performed in a Racine Concert Band performance.
“He gave a very sophisticated performance, I would say,” said director and longtime friend Mark Eichner. “He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Bell died of a heart attack early Wednesday morning. He was 75 years old.
WGTD’s Fine Arts Director Greg Berg found it fitting that some of Bell’s last moments were spent playing with the concert band.
“Tim Bell was somebody who played beside some of the best musicians in the country and he seemed equally happy sitting in the Racine Concert Band and Kenosha Pops Band,” he said. “It didn’t matter to Tim; he loved music, he loved people and he loved playing music with people.”
A teacher’s heart
Bell and Eichner first met at the University of North Texas. Bell was invited to be a guest artist with the university's band during Eichner’s freshman year. Years later, Bell hired Eichner to be one of the band directors at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where the two taught together for 29 years.
Since the news of Bell’s death, Eichner said he’s received emails from dozens of his former students.
“They fall into two categories: There’s the ones that say, ‘He believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself,’ ” said Eichner. “And there’s the kind that said, ‘I didn’t know what he had, but I knew I needed to get it.’ ”
Dave Braun graduated from the program in 1979 and the two became friends as they continued to perform together. He said Bell had an unmatchable level of energy and passion for music making.
“He played with so much fire,” said Braun. “Whenever Tim played, he brought it. There was a sense of energy he brought that raised everybody up a level.”
That passion drew students to Parkside for years.
“He brought so much excitement to that program that it became a destination,” said Braun, whose group, the Dave Braun Trio, performs regularly at the Hob Nob Restaurant in Somers. “So many of his students became band teachers in the Unified School District.”
Tom Meredith is also a former student of Bell’s. He said that Bell’s fingerprints are all over music education in Racine today.
“He put a pretty good stamp on those he met at school who became teachers,” Meredith said. “What he taught is still being taught today in the schools.”
Berg described Bell as a natural teacher.
“He had a teacher’s heart,” he said. “He was a teacher, mentor, friend to literally hundreds of students in the area.”
One of his graduates, Tim Fox, said he still finds himself imitating Bell’s style.
“When I stand in front of a jazz band now I copy the stuff that I saw him do and the energy he brought to every rehearsal,” said Fox. “He gave 110 percent in every rehearsal.”
He gave me a chance
After graduation, Bell helped Braun and Fox find music gigs and would hire them to play with him at gigs. Bell would also organize jazz festivals where he’d hire his friends to play.
“He gave me a chance at those gigs,” Fox said.
For years, Bell booked Fox to play at a jazz festival at a resort in Door County. The bands stayed in what they called the “band shack” out back.
“I have a lot of memories of sitting on the porch of the band shack,” Fox said. “Hanging in beautiful Door County, talking about everything under the sun, everything under the moon.”
“It wasn’t the most attractive place but we looked forward to it every year,” he said.
Like with Fox, Bell’s friendships with former students lasted years, even decades. Fox attributes a big part of that to the generosity of Bell's wife, Gerry Slavek.
“It’s not easy to be a musician’s wife,” said Fox. “Sharing him with all of us, she was very graceful.”
In addition to his wife, he also leaves behind two grown children.
A world-class musician
In addition to his passion, Bell was an extremely talented musician. Bell had played the saxophone and/or clarinet with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Skylight Opera, Milwaukee Ballet, the Fireside Theatre and shared the stage with such big names as Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, Aretha Franklin and the Temptations.
“Tim was this incredibly skilled, gifted, world-class musician, yet to meet him he seemed like an ordinary guy,” said Berg. “To meet him, you wouldn’t guess that he was one of the best musicians in the State of Wisconsin.”
In 2009, WGTD found its schedule had changed and programmers needed to fill an hour with a jazz program. Berg recommended Bell host the show, which became “Big Bands and Beyond.”
“He’d never done radio in his life but I knew he knew so much about (jazz) and had such a likable personality,” said Berg. “The listeners seemed to really enjoy what he did. Listening to him was like you had a friend sitting across the table playing jazz for you.”
Berg said it would be impossible to measure the influence Bell had on the region’s music scene.
“When you think about the number of years he taught and the number of students he had, I don’t know if you could even quantify what that kind of legacy represents,” Berg said. “I really can't think of anyone who was a more powerful and positive influence than Tim.”