Local musician, ‘ambassador for jazz’

by Len Lear
Posted 5/11/23

Walter Bell, an international force in jazz, gave up the flute for 20 years because his music career wasn’t paying the bills.

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Local musician, ‘ambassador for jazz’


Walter Bell, an international force in jazz, gave up the flute for 20 years because his music career wasn’t paying the bills.

 He worked as a janitor, in a post office, a dress factory, and even sold encyclopedias. He ho-ho-hoed holiday greetings as a telephone Santa Claus and toiled in a prison hospital.

But a steady living didn’t fulfill the artist in him, so after two decades, Bell, of Chestnut Hill, picked up the flute again with a renewed determination to make it as a full-time musician - regardless of the odds.

And it worked, putting Bell on the road to creating a music legacy that he is now preserving in retirement.

Bell has played with some of the legends in the jazz and soul music world such as Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, George Benson and the Count Basie Orchestra. Locally, Bell has performed at the Allens Lane Art Center and at Chestnut Hill's summertime Pastorius Park concerts.

“I've been very lucky,” Bell told us. “This flute took me to Western Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, Brazil, Argentina and all over the U.S. I was shocked to find out that people actually knew who I was in South America. They were familiar with my Caribbean and Bossa Nova music as well as jazz. People told me they listen to my music on YouTube. I was playing on a beach in Rio De Janeiro with people who spoke no English, only Portuguese. I never thought music would take me all over the world, but it has.”

A self-taught flautist, Bell, who has recorded 16 CDs, grew up in West Philadelphia. He graduated from Overbrook High School and Cheyney University as an education major. He never took music lessons because his family was unable to get a teacher to come to his neighborhood, but “I always had an ear for music, all kinds. I could tell who was talented and who was not, even though I was self-taught. I often went to the Electric Factory, Uptown Theater and Gino's Empty Foxhole; that was my music education. I had a large record collection and pretty extensive knowledge of stereo equipment.” 

Bell played in a local rock band after college, and music buffs were noticing his mellow tone, but actually being able to pay the bills from his music proved impossible. He quit the music business for two decades, but then returned, willing to play anywhere at any time, and things started clicking. Within a few years, Bell was getting great reviews for his improvisational work (“I play mostly with my eyes closed”), and the finest jazz musicians were anxious to play with him.

“One fan literally wrote me a blank check when I told him it takes a lot of money to make a record,” Bell said last week in his Highland Avenue home. “That helped me make my first album. I did not have the luxury to do three, four or five takes. It had to be right the first time ... Once I was playing in a club in Washington, D.C., and went outside for a break. A guy named Mark Greene who was walking down the street with a CVS bag stopped to ask me about my music. He said he used to sing in an R&B group called the Moments. So we kept in touch, and he wound up singing on a recording we made in a New York studio. It was one of our most successful albums.”

Bell eventually hosted a jazz radio show on a public radio station in Washington, D.C., called "Latin Flavor" and has employed dozens of musicians in Philadelphia, Virginia, New York and Washington. A founder of a record label, Reika Records, he has recorded live at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, done soundtracks for cable TV and for New Millennium Records. He has sold out the Kimmel Center. 

According to a Virginia music writer Regina Brayboy, “Bell hears the slightest change in tempo in the human voice and picks up any other sounds that permeate the airways such as a red bird chirping near his back patio.”

But in late 2005, Bell’s career - and his health - took a stunning turn. 

He was on stage at the Kimmel Center performing as an opening act for Chick Corea when he suddenly passed out. Bell spent 31 days in Jefferson Hospital, where he was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels that cause irregular connections between arteries and veins. One-and-a-half years later he had “gamma knife” surgery, a computer-guided treatment, at Temple University Hospital. 

One day I'm on stage, and the next day I'm in intensive care,” he said. “I was in a radioactive chamber, cutting-edge technology. After all that time in the hospital, I did give lessons in my house, but the medication I'm on makes me drowsy, which is not conducive to teaching (or performing). I don't have the patience for it now. I do want to leave a legacy with the music I've made, though.”

Bell does not have a website, but if you Google “Walter Bell, flute,” his YouTube videos will come right up. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.