Portrait

James Louis Bell

My life on one page:

Military Service

Music

Career

Family

Present


The February 11, 2010 issue of the Saint Helena Star did a rather flattering piece on me....

 

Bits, bytes and blues notes

Making the most of a 24-hour day

By Carolyn Younger

STAFF WRITER

_______________

At ease in front of any keyboard, musician and inventor Jim Bell plays a jazz standard from the 1940s, 'How High The Moon', on the family's grand piano.  Bell and his trio are appearing Feb 17 at Silo's Jazz Club in Napa
 
The St. Helena composer brings up a recent piece he created using the computer sequencing software he developed over a 12-year period which allows musicians to record, overdub, play back and edit tracks.
Bell runs through the opening bars of 'Aquarela do Brasil' on an electronic keyboard.

 For a musician, composer, inventor, movie buff, longtime IBM systems engineer and fan of the suit-and-tie, motorcycle enthusiast, onetime dedicated Porsche owner/driver,

family man, cook, tinkerer, artist, computer geek, Web site designer, traveler, raconteur, bocce player and devotee of New Yorker magazine cartoons, Jim Bell is unexpectedly easygoing.

 

A recent visit to his St. Helena digs revealed a relaxed, tallish 75-year-old dressed in jeans and a pale denim shirt. The eye-catching piece of furniture in the home he shares with Sabina, his wife of almost 50 years (the anniversary is coming up Feb. 20 and it’s on Bell’s mind), is a 7-1/2 foot Yamaha C-7 acoustic grand piano gleaming in a corner of the living room. Above it is a watercolor of Bell, seated at a piano, and his daughter, Susan, standing behind him. The painting was her gift to him. (The Bells have two other children, sons Jim Jr. and Jeff.)

 

Bell was on hand to talk about the upcoming appearance of the Jim Bell Trio (Bell at the piano, Soren Bloch on drums, Graham Bruce on bass) at Silo’s Jazz Club in Napa. The trio will be playing jazz standards from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17, with Marti Blackard providing the vocals.

 

Most of Bell’s many interests can be traced to his early years, growing up in Canonsburg, Penn., also the hometown of Perry Como and Bobby Vinton.

Bell is the son of working-class people, he said. His father was an Italian immigrant who changed his name from Campana to the English equivalent, Bell.

(Years later, a well-intentioned grandson would change it back again but with an unexpected addition of a “g,” which altered the meaning.)

 

Young Jim Bell played piano from the time he was 4, drawn to the family’s old upright where he and his mother would play von Suppé’s “Peasant and Poet Overture.”

In high school the trombone was his instrument of choice, and he played it in the school band, the marching band and the dance band. When he was a sophomore he and some buddies joined the musicians union and played locally. By the time he was 17 he was on the road with the Russ Romero Orchestra.

 

But that was only part of what he was up to. Bell also was the founder of JLB Laboratories (the L stands for Louis) set up in the family basement.

“There were three of us, three friends,” he recalled. “I’ll tell you something. In those days you could go to the drugstore and buy a quart of concentrated sulfuric acid. The pharmacist would go in the back and come out with this bottle with a skull and cross bones on it. Can you imagine being able to do that today?”

From chemistry he moved to marginally safer interests, electronics and tinkering with his father’s radios. “I remember I took one and put the controls upstairs in my bedroom and had all these wires running down the stairs.”

 

Needless to say, tinkering and music have always been part of his life, even during a stint in the Air Force, after which he met and married Sabina.

His acquired knowledge quite possibly contributed to his being hired by International Business Machines Corporation in 1959. Despite a company-initiated hiring freeze, he said. “I was the only one hired that whole year, I felt pretty good about it.”

But the DeVry Tech graduate is most proud that after 30 years with the company he was hired back from retirement for another 10 years as a consultant.

“I’m not a man of letters,” he said, “but I was up there with Ph.D.s and holding my own.”

 

A joint project with Westinghouse in the early 1970s brought the IBM systems manager and his family to California where he worked on getting two large mainframe computers to communicate with each other.

Bell laughed and described the size of the main computer, a giant of a thing with a tiny brain. “The 7090 system I started out on filled a cavernous room but it had a memory of 32K. Imagine. We’re into gigabytes now.”

(The solid-state IBM 7090 was the most powerful data processing system of its day and sold for $2.8 million until it was withdrawn in 1969. The Smithsonian Institution used it for its astrophysical observatory. By comparison, today’s average photographer is walking around with at least a 2 gigabyte memory card — the equivalent of 2 million kilobytes — in his digital camera.)

 

Bell admits to an ongoing weakness for the “whizbang stuff” — the latest electronic gadgets, gimcracks and palm-sized cell phones that promise a window to the world.

He ended 40 years of motorcycling in 2006. (“It’s a wise man who knows when to hang it up.”) He no longer owns a Porsche but still believes every man should own one at some point in his life.

 

Over a 12-year period he developed the MidiLab/2 computer sequencing software for synthesizer (The first OS/2-based MIDI sequencer for those in the know) and along the way founded Far Pavilions Studio. (“It has a nice ring to it.”)  He also composed, performed and recorded “Suite for Orchestra” and five additional pieces for piano and synthesized orchestra which he hopes to someday hear performed locally.

 

He is, he said, still trying to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

 

And the trombone that helped him earn his musician’s chops?  It’s tucked under the eaves of an upstairs crawl space. Once a year Bell hauls it out and at the moment that New Year’s Eve segues into New Year’s Day he steps onto the front porch and treats the neighborhood to a rousing “Reveille.”

*  *  *


return to home