LOUIE BELLSON: 1924-2009, by Bruce Klauber
Louie Bellson, master drummer, composer, arranger, educator and the last of the certifiable swing era percussion stars, passed away on Februrary 14 at the age of 84.
As a player and as a human being, there will never, ever be another like him. Whether at a clinic, a master class, recording session, or after a performance, he took the time to answer every question, sign every autograph, and fulfill every request. He spoke ill of no one.
His playing was just like he was. Beyond category, eras or labels. Stylistically, his was an “all-purpose” way of playing that fit with everything. Though grounded in swing, and indeed, his first major job was with Benny Goodman, this was an artist who played with everyone from Louis Armstrong and Harry James to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Technically, most percussion experts agree that he was the only one who could come close to equalling Buddy Rich’s speed and dexterity. And via his ground-breaking use of two bass drums, he took Buddy’s technique a step beyond.
But whatever he played, and no matter what the setting, he never let his technique get in the way of taste. He played for the situation, and in his long and varied career, “the situation” included a lot of session work, backing the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Tony Bennett, subbing for “The Tonight Show” orchestra, or acting as musical director for his first wife, entertainer Pearl Bailey.
Born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni on July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Illinois, Bellson’s interest in drums began at the age of three. As a teen, he came up with the idea of using another bass drum as a part of the drum kit and in fact, his design for it won him an ‘A’ in high school art class (the problem was getting a drum company to build a kit to his specs, until the Gretsch Drum Company stepped forward several years later). In 1941, he won the national Gene Krupa Drum Contest sponsored by Slingerland drums, beating out more than 40,000 other drummers.
His first major job was with the big band of Ted FioRito, then Benny Goodman grabbed him in 1942. During the 1940s, he spent most of his time in the bands of Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, with several timeouts to lead his own small
In the early 1950s, Louie Bellson made history.
In 1951, Duke Ellington was running into problems. Three of his biggest stars–drummer Sonny Greer, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trombonist Lawrence Brown left Duke to work in a small group led by Hodges. The savvy Ellington raided the Harry James band that year–the caper was known as “the great James robbery”–and enticed altoist Willie Smith, valve trombonist Juan Tizol and drummer Bellson to join the Ellington band. The drummer is generally credited as reviving Duke’s band and inspiring it to swing like it never did before. And, Duke encouraged Bellson’s composing and arranging talents, performing and recording what became two, Duke Ellington hits, “Skin Deep” and “The Hawk Talks.”
A year later, he made national headlines when he married entertainer Pearl Bailey. In 1952, tolerance for interracial marriage was not at a particularly high level, in this country, and those early years, spent in the public spotlight, were not easy for them. Still, the union flourished and lasted until Bailey’s death in 1990.
Over the years, he returned to the Ellington fold from time to time on an as-needed basis, often for Duke’s special Sacred Concerts. Likewise, he frequently deputized in the bands of Count Basie, Harry James, Woody Herman and countless others.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he became more involved in leading — and composing and arranging for–his own orchestras, and in the jazz education movement. He’s written over a dozen drum instruction books and participated in a number of videos. SInce the 1970s, he’s been the recipient of numerous awards, among the first being named a “Duke Ellington Fellow” by Yale University in 1977.
He continued playing, composing and recording until just a few months ago, with his final CD a collaboration with trumpeter Clark Terry.
Hudson Music and yours truly were involved in a number of performance-oriented and instructional projects with Louie Bellson through the years. He added wonderful commentary on the “Gene Krupa: Jazz Legend” project, and he narrated the monumental, “Legends of Jazz Drumming” videos. And along with Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Max Roach, he was the subject of the 1998 Zildjian Lifetime Achievement Awards video. Whatever the project, he was, without exception, knowledgeable, thoughtful, enthusiastic, tireless, encouraging, funny, and always swinging. In one session of filming. Bellson commented on almost 100 drummers in jazz history, including a number of contemporary players. He knew what they all contributed, and spoke of how they all were and are important. Like Gene Krupa, Bellson was a perpetual student, always listening and always learning. Personally? He personified the world “gentleman.” Whenever we saw each other, he always told me how important my work was and how much of a contribution I continued making.
Louie Bellson is survived by his wife, Francine, who helped guide her husband’s career since their marriage in 1991. “Francine has been a blessing to me,” Bellson said some years back. “I’m a man who got two blessings–with Pearl 38 years and I thought that was the end but–here comes Francine. She’s been so great. When Pearl passed away, the first two years I was OK during the day, but at nighttime when I wasn’t performing, I was lonesome. All of sudden Francine came, and I thought I was hallucinating. But she brought me back to reality again.”
Rest in peace, Maestro. And keep swingin’.
Dr. Bruce H. Klauber