A true craftsman hones freedom and creativity from the staid traditions of everyday life. Trombonist Shawn Bell exemplifies this creed. His omnivorous playing and writing have been called “soulful” and “captivatingly quirky.” While Jazz has been the driving force of Bell’s training and education, he has earned a reputation as a dynamic journeyman always ready to “play the gig” at hand. This commitment to making music not bound by the doctrine of a single style or genre has given Bell a unique voice as musician, composer, and educator.
Shawn’s musical apprenticeship started in southwest Michigan. There, he took advantage of many of the typical experiences aspiring young musicians pursue, including local and state honor bands, studying privately, and playing in a local big band. These experiences spurred Shawn to continue his education at the college level at Western Michigan University where he studied under Dr. Steve Wolfinbarger and Dr. Scott Cowan. Both of these teachers helped him lay a strong foundation based on the fundamentals of brass playing, the Jazz tradition, and, above all else, making music rather than displaying empty virtuosity.
After completing his undergraduate degree from WMU, Shawn furthered his education by attending Northern Illinois University to earn a master’s degree. This time period also provided Bell with many opportunities, including touring internationally, taking part in the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency program, being selected as a finalist for the Eastern Trombone Workshop Jazz trombone competition, and being mentored by the great Jazz educator Ronald Carter.
Outside the walls of academia, Shawn has spent the last ten years building a resume marked by variety. In 2010, he released his debut album Things Yet Unknown to critical acclaim. The Midwest Record Review noted, “Solid playing and writing, a great tone and a young, untamed spirit all team up to make this a delightfully auspicious debut.” JazzTimes’s website stated, “To find a young trombonist like Shawn with this level of command and virtuosity is amazing.” Additionally, Bell has played with many luminaries in the Jazz realm, including Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, Bobby McFerrin, Bob Mintzer, and Paquito D’Rivera.
While Jazz has framed Shawn’s artistic lineage as a trombonist, he is also a sought-after performer in other styles and a skilled composer and arranger. In 2013, Bell joined one of the Midwest’s premiere Salsa bands: Grupo Aye. This 11-piece band maintains an active performance schedule at festivals and events throughout the region. Shawn has also distinguished himself as a first-call freelance player, who is at home performing with groups ranging from R&B and Funk bands to pit orchestras and studio ensembles.
As a composer, Bell has written extensively for traditional big band settings, including many compositions and arrangements geared towards student ensembles. These works have been said to be “steeped in the Jazz language,” and “challenging to play, yet still accessible to most audiences” by educators at the high school and college level. Outside of Jazz, Shawn is an active freelance composer and arranger whose writing can be heard on many recordings and live shows. His work is as varied as creating arrangements of current pop tunes for cruise ship musicians, to collaborating with progressive rock bands in the studio.
Just as Shawn stood on the shoulders of masters to start his career, he now works to do the same for the next generation of trombonists and Jazz musicians as an in-demand educator. Bell has over ten years of experience working with students at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Along with maintaining a full private lesson studio, he has also taught large and small Jazz ensembles at Northern Illinois University and has taught music theory, songwriting and arranging, and trombone at Lansing Community College. In addition, Shawn is an experienced clinician and guest artist who has worked with Jazz ensembles throughout the Midwest. Elements of his approach to leading large Jazz ensembles can be found in the 2016 book Teaching Music Through Performance in Jazz: Volume 2.
The journeyman musician is one who is always ready to create at a high level in any situation. Shawn’s playing, writing, and teaching epitomizes this point of view. He currently plies his trade throughout the Midwest.