The days when a 15-piece orchestra was referred to as “14 musicians and a drummer” are long gone.
That this jocular, often false image has given way to a new conception can be credited in large measure to the contributions of men like Louie Bellson, whose big band will be heard Tuesday through next Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood.
What makes Bellson special is his overall musicianship. A gifted composer and arranger who has written everything from jazz instrumentals to ballets, he can incorporate his role logically instead of banging away without regard to the dynamic or melodic structure of the work in progress.
“I can understand why critics were low on drum solos,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s not fun to see a guy up there beating his brains out, and at the end of the solo you don’t even known where ‘one’ (the first beat of the bar) is.”
“My father played all the instruments,” Bellson recalled. “He knew I was ambidextrous and could do whatever I wanted, but he said, ‘Now you have to learn how to become musical.’ So after rebelling against it, I studied harmony and theory. In additional to becoming a better musician, I had a lot of fun composing.”
What also sets Bellson apart is his phenomenal technique and the uses to which he puts it, notably the employment of two bass drums, with which he can create volleys of incredible rapidity.
It was during Bellson’s two-year stint in the early ‘50s with the Duke Ellington Orchestra that his double-pedal dynamism came to the fore, particularly on his composition “Skin Deep,” the first recording ever to capture a drummer soloing on two bass drums simultaneously.
Oddly enough, the technique was also used, though never regularly, by a drummer who represented different values: Buddy Rich.
Rich’s inability to read music was a source of frustration, Bellson believes.
“During the last few years of his life,” Bellson said, “I saw him fooling around with the vibes or the keyboards; there was something in his head, but he didn’t know how to express it. He told me: ‘Yeah, I know what to do with the drums, but I wish I could spell out something musically.’ ”
In other ways, Bellson and Rich were alike.
“The main similarity was that Buddy and I both played like tap dancers--which he was, as a child,” Bellson said. “He once said, ‘I’m not really playing drums. I’m tap-dancing when I’m playing.’ I often feel the same way.”
Bellson’s musicality has enabled him to lead a multiple life. From the time he left Ellington in 1953, just after his marriage to singer Pearl Bailey, he divided his time between traveling as a musical director, leading his own bands and writing music.
After Bailey’s death in the summer of 1990, Bellson decided to cope with his grief by immersing himself in work. In the past year he has been overseas five times: in New Zealand and Spain on his own, working with local musicians, and through Europe this summer with Benny Carter and an all-star combo.
Bellson has long done his share of preaching what he practices, as teacher and performer in countless colleges. The National Drum Assn. voted him one of the country’s top clinicians; he was praised for his ability to explain not only what he does but also how the roots of jazz drumming were planted by such masters as Chick Webb, Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett.
Because the big band provides the best outlet for his music, Bellson prefers to work in that setting, though plane fares have all but killed the traveling-band concept. The drummer has found his way around this by drawing on three pools of musicians, in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
But because of the demands on Bellson’s time, his only recent extended opportunity to write came about as the result of an illness that sidelined him in 1990, when he and Bailey spent six weeks together at their home in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
“I decided to use that time by writing an extended piece for orchestra,” he said. “It’s called ‘Tomus I, II and III.’ ( Tomus is Latin for a cutting or shred.) It starts with a celebration of the birth of Christ; Tomus II is the War of the Ages, and Tomus III is the commitment to peace.
“Pearl heard me fooling around with these themes on the keyboard and decided to write words to it. She wrote some great lyrics.”
Lake Havasu City may be the site for the world premiere of Bellson’s magnum opus . “The people there are already building a movable stage named after Pearl, and they eventually want to build a 7,500-seat theater of the arts in her name,” Bellson said.
“Meanwhile, I just want to keep on playing good music. My mentors--people like the Maestro, Duke--told me never to prostitute myself. They showed me that if I do something constructive it will have longevity. That’s the way I’ve been educated, and that’s what I’ll always believe.”