Louie Bellson dies at 84; Duke Ellington called him ‘the world’s greatest drummer’
Louie Bellson, a jazz drummer and bandleader who combined remarkable instrumental virtuosity with far-ranging compositional skills, has died. He was 84.
According to his wife, Francine, Bellson died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications of Parkinson’s disease following a broken hip in November.
Bellson’s long, productive career stretched from his teens -- when, in competition with 40,000 other young players, he won the Slingerland National Gene Krupa drumming contest -- to the tours and seminars he continued until 2008.
Best known as a superlative big band drummer as a result of his work in the 1940s and ‘50s with Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Duke Ellington and others, Bellson was also an adept small group player. His more than 200 recorded appearances as leader and sideman encompass sessions with Jazz at the Philharmonic, Woody Herman, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, James Brown and dozens of others, including Ellington’s Big Four alongside guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Ray Brown.
“What makes Bellson so special,” former Times jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in 1991, “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.”
Bellson often said that he regarded his tenure with Ellington as one of the significant points in his career. Performing with the orchestra in the early ‘50s triggered a forward leap in his development as an instrumentalist and his confidence as a composer.
A pair of his best-known big band works, “The Hawk Talks” and “Skin Deep” became popular staples of the Ellington repertoire -- but not without some initial reservations from Bellson.
In a 2006 interview he said he had written “The Hawk Talks” with Harry James in mind.
“Harry was called ‘The Hawk,’ ” Bellson recalled. “But I wrote it when I was with Duke, and it took a lot of coaxing from [trombonist] Juan Tizol to make me bring it to Duke. I told Juan, ‘Are you crazy? You want me to bring music in to a place with Duke and Billy Strayhorn? Geniuses like that? No way.’ I brought it in anyhow and lo and behold, Duke recorded it right away.
“But it was Duke who taught me how to write. How to be original. How to know what to do with the rhythm section, with the horns.”
Ellington returned Bellson’s high regard, noting, “Not only is Louie Bellson the world’s greatest drummer . . . he’s the world’s greatest musician!”
Other artists concurred. Oscar Peterson described Bellson as “the epitome of musical talent. . . . I consider him one of the musical giants of our age.”
Bobby Colomby, former drummer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, pointed to Bellson’s pioneering work with the difficult technique of employing two bass drums, saying, “Louie had awesome, jaw-dropping technique. And I really don’t think he was ever fully appreciated for what an amazing drummer he really was.”
Bellson was born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, on July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Ill. Drawn to percussion as early as age 3, he was urged by his father, who owned a music store, to study keyboards, harmony and theory.
After winning the Krupa drum competition, he was offered a job in Ted Fio Rito’s dance band at Los Angeles’ Florentine Gardens. A few months later, still in his teens, he was hired by Goodman.
After serving in the Army for three years, Bellson returned to the Goodman band in 1946 for a year before moving on to play with Dorsey and James. The arrival of bebop, however, shifted the jazz world’s orientation toward smaller groups and a different style of rhythm playing. He was an instrumentalist and percussionist, more than simply a drummer, and immediately sought ways to adapt his own technique to the newly emerging styles.
“I was used to driving a big band -- four solid beats on the bass drum,” he explained to the JazzTimes. “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.”
While performing with Ellington from 1951 to 1953, Bellson met and married singer Pearl Bailey. Their interracial marriage, rare for the early ‘50s, coincided with Bellson’s presence as the only white member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
He spent the next few decades alternating between leading his own small groups and big bands, serving as Bailey’s music director and occasionally returning to work as a stellar sideman. A stint with Basie in 1961 was followed by a return to Ellington, performing the Concert of Sacred Music that Ellington described as “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
After Bailey’s death in 1990, Bellson continued his growing activities as a jazz educator while leading various-sized ensembles, including a pair of on-call big bands available for performances on both coasts. His most recent recordings include “The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet” and “The Louie and Clark Expedition 2" with trumpeter Clark Terry.
Bellson wrote more than 1,000 compositions and arrangements, including ballet music, sacred music, “The London Suite,” the “Concerto for Jazz Drummer and Full Orchestra” and a Broadway musical, “Portofino,” in addition to his numerous big band charts and small ensemble pieces. He wrote more than a dozen books and booklets on drums and percussion.
He received a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994; a Living Jazz Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2007; a Jazz Living Legend Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; and an American Drummers Achievement Award from the Avedis Zildjian Co.
He is survived by his wife of 16 years, Francine; daughters Dee Dee Bellson and Debra Hughes; two grandchildren; two brothers and two sisters. A Los Angeles-area service is being planned, followed by a funeral and burial in Moline, Ill.
Heckman is a freelance writer.
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