Bell was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on April 24, 1921. He played piano as a child and learned to play brass instruments in high school. He attended Xavier University, where he began playing double bass, and graduated in 1942. He served in a Navy band during World War II, completing his service in 1946.
Bell was a member of Andy Kirk's band in 1946 but left to enroll in graduate school at New York University in 1947. After completing his master's degree, he joined Lucky Millinder's band and gigged with Teddy Wilson. He later received a doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University.
In the 1950s, Bell appeared on Billie Holiday's album Lady Sings the Blues, and played with Lester Young, Stan Kenton, Johnny Hodges, Cab Calloway, Carmen McRae, and Dick Haymes. In 1960, he left Haymes' band after being offered a position in Duke Ellington's orchestra opposite drummer Sam Woodyard. He left Ellington's orchestra in 1962, and went on to play with Dizzy Gillespie before taking a series jobs on Broadway as a pit musician. He and Ellington collaborated again in 1967 on a tribute to Billy Strayhorn.
Bell was a resident artist at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City from 1969 until 1972. At La MaMa, he wrote music for Ed Bullins' one-act plays, produced as Short Bullins in 1972, and for William Mackey's Family Meeting. His music for Bullins' plays also went on tour with the Jarboro Company, named after Caterina Jarboro and directed by Hugh Gittens, on their 1972 Italy tour. During this tour, the company performed Bullins' one-acts and Richard Wesley's Black Terror in Milan and Venice.
Bell gave a performance of his original compositions, including the pieces he wrote for those plays, on March 19, 1972, as part of the Music at La MaMa concert series. He also wrote the music for the Cotton Club Gala, which was originally produced at La MaMa in 1975 and was revived and directed by Ellen Stewart in 1985.
He taught at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey from 1970 until 1990. In the 1970s, he toured with Norris Turney, Harold Ashby, and Cat Anderson. In the 1980s, he returned to the piano. Bell retired from active performance in 1989 and died in 2003, at the age of 82, in the Bronx.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (August 2012)
- Victory at Sea in Jazz, Aaron Bell Orchestra (MGM's Lion Records, late 1950s)
- Music From "Peter Gunn" (Lion Records, 1958)
- With Buck Clayton
With Billie Holiday
With Joe Williams
With Carmen McRae
- With Buddy Tate
- Swinging Like Tate (Felsted, 1958)
- With Johnny Griffin
- With Johnny Hodges
With Sonny Stitt
With Randy Weston
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Short Bullins (1972)". Accessed April 3, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Family Meeting (1972)". Accessed April 3, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Tour: Jarboro Company in Italy (1972)". Accessed May 16, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: 'Music at La MaMa: Aaron Bell & His Group' (1972)". Accessed April 3, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Cotton Club Gala (1975a)". Accessed April 3, 2018.
- La MaMa Archives Digital Collections. "Production: Cotton Club Gala (1985)". Accessed April 3, 2018.
- Pace, Eric (2003-07-31). "Aaron Bell, 82, Ellington Bassist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-04-03.