Larry J. Bell Shares Motivation Fueling Jazz Awards

November 9, 2022

Philanthropist and Past Board President Larry J. Bell continues to help The Gilmore make even more of an impact in the music world.

A long-time jazz fan and musician himself, Larry Bell this year made possible a gift of $8.8 million to create jazz awards that parallel our classical awards.

Just like the anonymously-judged $300,000 Gilmore Artist and $25,000 Gilmore Young Artist Awards, the Larry J. Bell Jazz Awards will boost the careers of three artists to be announced – and to perform – at our 2026 festival, and at alternating festivals down the road.

A music lover since a young age, when his parents owned a player piano at their home in suburban Chicago, Bell remembers big parties filled with music.

“We had 150 piano rolls, so we were doing karaoke before there was karaoke, complete with a mic and amp,” he says, adding he became the resident drummer for the parties when he received a toy drum set. Private lessons as a grade-schooler, playing in jazz bands in high school, sneaking out to downtown jazz clubs to hear Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, or Woody Herman were all seminal experiences for him.

Once in Kalamazoo, he found himself on the radio, co-hosting a jazz show on Kalamazoo public radio station WMUK, and booking bands at local clubs. Time in Ann Arbor saw him adding flute to his studies, and doing more club bookings. Though accepted to WMU’s music program to further study flute, Bell says he never matriculated. Still, “Beer did ok for me,” he says with a smile.

It’s clear he is having a good time building his legacy.

“Irving (Gilmore) never got to see his money in action,” he says. “I never planned this to happen, I was never going to sell the company, but this is fun. I’m just making it up as I go along. Now that I’m retired, I can go back and get involved in things I loved before my work life, and jazz is one of them.”

Today, he most often “noodles on the piano,” but gets on the drums at his home when he can.

“When Sandbox Percussion was here, I hosted them at a party and said ‘Who’s going to tune my kit?’” he says with a laugh, adding they did him that favor. He also reports having a great time chauffeuring piano legend Herbie Hancock in September during Hancock’s visit to perform in a rescheduled Festival performance at Chenery Auditorium.

As to his favorite jazz musicians alive today or in the past?

“I certainly like Emmet Cohen. Keith Jarrett no longer plays but he’s on the list. I love Kenny Rankin, Chick Corea. My all-time favorite is Bill Evans. I have two worn-out copies of his Montreaux II, which you can’t buy or download today.”

Bell says his very first recording was an 8-track tape, but among his first records was a double set by Buddy Rich,which cost just $4.88 (and he still owns). He is gratified that his support will help more artists, along with the long-range vision for the organization.

“I think it will strengthen The Gilmore overall, and help us achieve our goals of bringing in more diverse audiences. I hope, too, that it affords opportunities for our next generation of great jazz pianists.”

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