Louie Bellson: The Go-To Guy

There’s an innate elegance about Louis Bellson. Not just in the princely garb he usually wears, or in his self-assured manner, but in the way those qualities come together to produce a timeless image of a classy musician in action. Even now, at 83, he climbs onto his drum stool radiating the confident connection with the music that has been present for nearly seven decades.

That inner-focused sense of self is already visible in Benny Goodman films from the early ’40s, revealing Bellson as a dark-haired, good-looking 18-year-old, smoothly propelling the rhythm in one of the era’s great swing bands (fronted by one of the era’s famously irascible leaders). Given all those qualities, it’s no wonder that Bellson has had, and continues to have, a career that reaches far beyond the ambitious dreams of most jazz drummers.

In his recent, still-busy agenda, he performed with the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra in October in a concert of music from three classic Duke Ellington film scores: Anatomy of a Murder, Paris Blues and Assault on a Queen. “I don’t think,” says Bellson, recalling his long, musically productive association with Ellington, “that Duke ever realized what beautiful music he wrote for those movies.”

A new big band recording with Clark Terry, scheduled for release in early 2008—“We’re hoping for January,” Bellson notes—is titled The Louie and Clark Expedition, 2. The whimsical title traces to a Terry composition, “Louie & Clark Expedition,” on the 1994 recording Live From New York (Telarc). And a DVD of Ellington’s last recording, Duke’s Big 4, is scheduled for release in early winter under the title Duke, the Last Jam Session with Ray Brown, Joe Pass & Louie Bellson.

He is also working closely with the Drum Channel on videotaping interviews, panel discussions and studio performances for the upcoming (pay) Web site, www.DrumChannel.com.

To make certain that he keeps the creative juices flowing, Bellson composes on a regular schedule. “Without fail,” he says. “Maybe four measures, maybe eight, maybe more. But always something. And I do it every day.”

He divides his time between homes in San Jose in Northern California and Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Although Parkinson’s disease, which is under good control, has obliged him to cut back on what was always a busy routine, Bellson continues to get behind the drums as much as possible.

He has, he says, the option of playing with a local big band twice a month in San Jose, where his second wife, physicist Francine Wright Bellson, is active in Silicon Valley. “Sometimes we do a presentation we call ‘The Physicist and the Percussionist.’ She’s got three degrees—she’s way ahead of me on that.”

“Fifteen years we’ve been married, after 39 years with Pearl Bailey,” Bellson adds with a laugh. “That’s got to be a record!”

In Los Angeles, where he participates in developing new drum technology for Remo, Inc., he “rehearses as much as possible with the great players in town,” and continues to participate, as he has for many years, in student-oriented drum and band clinics and classes.

Bellson’s belief in the values of work, study and craftsmanship trace back to his youth, and to the firm guidance of a musician father. Born July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Ill., he was christened Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, a name which, obviously, was quickly recast at the start of his professional career. Although he was drawn to percussion as early as the age of 3, his father insisted upon a broader education. “He tried to get me to study piano,” recalls Bellson. “I said I wanted to play drums, but he told me to go the keyboard and study harmony and theory. And I did, along with all other the instruments. I also had the opportunity to listen to all the records my dad had in his music store, and that was a big help, too.”

But his own inventive imagination played a big role, as well. The design for a double-bass-drum set-up—Bellson’s unique addition to the world of jazz percussion—first appeared as a sketch for a high school art class. He got an “A.” At 17, he entered the Slingerland National Gene Krupa Drum Competition and won, beating over 40,000 other contestants.

With that kind of recognition, his hometown territory of Moline/Davenport/Rock Falls began to feel like small pickings. Especially so since Bellson had already had significant experience with high-level professional players.

“I used to play at a club called the Rendezvous, for three years when I was a teenager,” he explains. “They’d let me sit in every Tuesday night, which sort of became Louis Bellson night. And, playing with musicians from Kansas City, that’s where I learned how to swing.”

Ironically, the first name band to pick up on his drumming was fronted by Ted Fio Rito, a society-dance-band leader perhaps best known as the composer of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” and “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” When Bellson sat in with the band in early 1942, Fio Rito immediately offered him a job, willing to accept his double-bass-drum set-up, virtually unheard of at the time.

“I said, ‘I can’t accept the gig because I have three more months of high school,’” says Bellson. “‘So finish high school,’ he said. ‘Call me, and I’ll bring you out to California.’ I didn’t think it would happen but it did. I called him as soon as I graduated, and the next thing you know I’m in L.A. at a place called the Florentine Gardens on Hollywood Boulevard, working on a show with the Mills Brothers.”

But Bellson’s tenure with Fio Rito was short. A few months after his move to L.A., Benny Goodman’s brother Freddy heard him. “Evidently he took a liking to me,” recalls Bellson. “He called me over to the table and said, ‘How would you like to join Benny Goodman’s band?’ Well, I started stuttering and everything, but he just said, ‘I’ll pick you up tomorrow. Benny’s doing a motion picture and I want you to join the band and be in it. I told him I was with Fio Rito and he said, ‘Ah, it’s OK, we’ll fix it up.’ And he did. Ted said, ‘It’s OK, I knew I couldn’t hang on to you anyway.’ So the next day I went down to the studio, they fitted me up with a tuxedo, and I was on the bandstand playing with Benny Goodman.”

For Bellson, memories such as these are still very much alive, described with a real sense of the wonder he experienced as he walked onstage with the Goodman band. Universally admired for the combination of technical virtuosity and musical subtlety that has informed his playing from the very beginning, he nonetheless is the first to recognize the unique aspects of a journey that has taken him through the highest levels of the jazz art.

And it has done so with startling ease, the only temporary glitch occurring when he was drafted in the Army a little over a year after he joined Goodman.

“Uncle Sam got me for three years,” he explains. “I was supposed to join Ziggy Elman out at March Field, but the Army took me all the way cross-country to Washington, D.C., where I played in the Walter Reed Hospital Band. And that was really something. All the amputees were there, and I thought the last thing they’d want to hear was a bass drum beat that sounded like a bomb. But I was wrong; that’s exactly what they all wanted to hear: drum solos. So I gave them what they wanted, whether I was playing in an orchestra, a big band, or a small group.”

After Bellson was discharged from the Army in 1946, he returned to the Goodman band for a year, before moving on the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. But musical changes were in the wind, and he was quick to respond.

“I was very aware of bebop when I came back,” he says. “I knew it was controversial, and the first time I heard them, I knew that Diz and Charlie Parker were doing something different. But it was so musical that it got to me right away. These guys, every note a gem, with Max Roach on drums, were really something. The second time I heard them, I bought it 100 percent.”

Always a quick learner, eager to improve his craft, Bellson immediately realized that bop drummers, led by Roach, were shaping the role of the drums into something very different from what it had been in the big swing bands.

“I was used to what you had to do to drive a big band: four solid beats on the bass drum,” he says. “No matter what the tempo was, they wanted to hear the bass drum. And, coming from that to bebop, I still liked to drop bombs now and then. Then Lester Young came to me once and said, ‘Lou, just play titty-bop, titty-bop and don’t drop no bombs.’ That’s when I got it, putting all that energy up into the right hand, playing on the cymbal. And I loved it. The left hand was syncopated, and the bass drum could be syncopated also, because a good bass player playing four beats to the bar took care of that basic beat.”

For Bellson, who, from the very beginning, had been constantly in search of new sounds and timbres, far more an instrumentalist/percussionist than simply a drummer, the changes that bebop brought opened the door to unfettered creativity. When he left James in 1951 to join Ellington, the final piece in the complex picture of his musical persona, composition, came into place. Interestingly, the impetus came from a work Bellson says was originally written for the James band: “The Hawk Talks.”

“Harry was called ‘The Hawk,’” he says, “and it took a lot of coaxing from Juan Tizol to make me bring the piece to Duke. I told Juan, ‘Are you crazy? You want me to bring music into a place with Duke and Billy Strayhorn? Geniuses like that? No way.’ But I brought it in, and lo and behold, Duke recorded it right away.”

It was the start of a relationship that would have a profound impact upon Bellson, professionally and privately. But the first revelation awaiting him after he joined Ellington was unexpected. There were no drum parts. “It was a real switch,” he says, a note of amazement still in his voice, more than half a century later. “With Harry’s band, I had charts to read. With Duke, there was no drum music, no rehearsal. Fortunately, Clark Terry was in the band, and he showed me a lot of things, which was very helpful. But Duke gave me full credit for knowing what to do in the rhythm section. He said, ‘I had Sonny Greer, and now I have Louis Bellson. I want to hear Louis Bellson.’”

Ellington obviously liked what he heard, once describing Bellson as “the world’s greatest drummer.” Bellson remained with the orchestra from 1951 to 1953, returning occasionally thereafter, while absorbing a virtual lifetime’s worth of composing and arranging information via day-to-day contact with Ellington and Strayhorn. “They were a magical pair, and it was a magical experience,” the drummer recalls. “I can see them now, like when they were working on the ‘Nutcracker Suite,’ with Billy leaning over Duke’s shoulder, working over their ideas so closely that none of us, not even Johnny Hodges, could tell who wrote which part.”

As the only white player in an all-African-American ensemble, Bellson also received some early lessons in race relations, lessons that served him well in his rare, for the time, interracial marriage to Pearl Bailey. “After I was in the band for a couple of months, Duke said, ‘We’re going to make a tour down South to do a show with Sarah Vaughan and the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and he said, ‘Do you know what that means?’ I was puzzled, so Duke said, ‘I can’t find another drummer who can do what you do, so I’m going to make you a Haitian.’ And I said, ‘I’m ready to play music, no matter what.’ So I became a fair-skinned Haitian, and I stayed with the band wherever we went.”

After spending the balance of the decade leading his own groups, serving as music director for Pearl Bailey and returning briefly to Tommy Dorsey, Bellson received a call from Count Basie that would add yet another unique achievement to his long list of career firsts. “Sonny Payne, Basie’s regular drummer, got sick,” explains Bellson. “I told Basie, ‘I’d like to help out,’ but I was booked with my band at Birdland. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll work it out.’ And so I went out for six weeks with Basie. And what an experience it was. Man, you talk about a swing band. Freddie Green was in the band, Frank Foster and Frank Wess, Thad Jones, Jimmy Cleveland, Charlie Fowlkes.”

It was also a band that had its own inimitable rhythm engine, energized by Basie’s piano and the guitar of Green. “Yeah,” says Bellson, “in a way it was very different from Ellington’s. But I caught onto it pretty quickly. Duke’s band played a hot four to the bar, and you really wailed in that band. Basie leaned more toward bebop. But they were both great piano players, and the time element, for each of their styles, was right there in their rhythm.

“The thing that really helped me,” continues Bellson, “was remembering all those records I heard in my father’s store when I was young, Basie’s and Duke’s. I studied both of them to the point where I knew exactly what to do as a drummer.”

And not just as a drummer. Over the last few decades, Bellson’s creative progress has continued with barely a pause. Like so many other aspects of his remarkable journey—whether his encounters with the rhythm sections of Ellington and Basie, his transition from swing to bebop, or his achievements as a bandleader, a composer and an educator—everything seems to trace full circle to Bellson’s lifelong ability to absorb and learn from his surroundings. With a list of honors that includes an NEA Jazz Masters award, multiple Grammy nominations, entry into the Halls of Fame of Modern Drummer and the Percussive Arts Society, and an honorary doctorate from Northern Illinois University, he still plays by the same basic rules.

“I listened to what my dad said, and I listened to what Max and Duke said,” concludes Bellson. “Don’t put anything down until you’ve heard it three or four times, play according to the music, keep up with the times, and always keep your eyes and ears open.”

Originally published in November 2007

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