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Big Band Report

Louie Bellson: Tasteful Drummer, Sweeter Guy

By Published: April 2, 2009
To say that drummer extraordinaire Louie Bellson
Louie Bellson
Louie Bellson
1924 - 2009
drums
, who left us on February 14, 2009 at age eighty-four, had a remarkable career would be to explicitly understate the record. Bellson's success at age 17 in a nationwide contest sponsored by one of his idols, Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa
Gene Krupa
1909 - 1973
drums
, and Slingerland Drums set the talented wunderkind on a path that saw him soon reach the pinnacle of his profession and remain there for nearly six decades. Bellson was not simply another timekeeper; he was one of the most accomplished and influential drummers in the history of jazz as well as a celebrated composer and arranger, several of whose works remain staples in the big-band repertoire. While still in high school he devised the singular technique of using two bass drums simultaneously, one for the left foot, the other for the right.

When World War II led to a shortage of professional musicians, young Luigi Balassoni (his given name) was recruited out of high school by Ted Fio Rito

Ted Fio Rito
b.1900
's band. He was still a teen-ager when Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
hired him late in 1942. After three years of Army service, Bellson returned to Goodman's band in 1946. He soon moved on to play with Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
Tommy Dorsey
1905 - 1956
trombone
's orchestra, leaving in 1949 to study composition, analyzing scores by Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky and other classical composers. He joined the Harry James
Harry James
Harry James
b.1916
trumpet
band in 1950 where he became friends with trombonist Juan Tizol
Juan Tizol
Juan Tizol
1900 - 1984
trombone
who had previously been a member of the Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
Orchestra. One year later, Ellington got in touch with Tizol, asking him to rejoin the orchestra and to bring Bellson and alto star Willie Smith with him. Bellson, who replaced the renowned drummer Sonny Greer
Sonny Greer
Sonny Greer
1895 - 1982
drums
, was the only white musician in an otherwise all-black ensemble, which posed more than a few problems, especially during tours of the southern states. Ellington sidestepped most of them by claiming that Bellson was Haitian. Promoters, eager to book the popular Ellington orchestra, were happy to accept the Duke's explanation and look the other way.

It was with Ellington that Bellson earned lasting fame as a superlative big-band drummer, meanwhile contributing a number of memorable compositions to the orchestra's library including his powerful drum feature, "Skin Deep," and "The Hawk Talks," a bow to James's nickname, the Hawk. In 1952 Bellson married the well-known entertainer Pearl Bailey

Pearl Bailey
Pearl Bailey
1918 - 1990
vocalist
, and the following year left Ellington to become her music director. They would remain married until Bailey's death in 1990. In 1954 Bellson had begun a long association with Norman Granz
Norman Granz
b.1918
's touring Jazz at the Philharmonic, supporting such stars as Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
, Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson
1925 - 2007
piano
, Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
1908 - 2002
vibraphone
, Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, Stan Getz
Stan Getz
Stan Getz
1927 - 1991
sax, tenor
and a host of others. He joined Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
Jimmy Dorsey
1904 - 1957
composer/conductor
's orchestra in 1955, and in 1962, the same year in which he composed a jazz ballet, "The Marriage Vow," undertook a Scandinavian tour with the Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
Orchestra. From 1967 on, Bellson led his own big band on the West Coast, and in the 1990s formed another band based in New York City.

Along the way, Bellson wrote more than 1,000 compositions including ballet and sacred music, The London Suite, and a Broadway musical, "Portofino." He appeared in a number of films including Stage Door Canteen and The Gang's All Here (1943), A Song Is Born (1948), Rock 'n Roll Revue (1955), Monterey Jazz (1968), Duke Ellington at the White House (1969) and All-Star Salute to Pearl Bailey (1979), and performed on more than two hundred recordings with a who's who of jazz and pop stars including Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Goodman, the Dorseys, James, Peterson, Hampton, Fitzgerald, Getz, Woody Herman

Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band/orchestra
, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
, Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
b.1926
vocalist
, Mel Torme
Mel Torme
Mel Torme
b.1925
vocalist
, Joe Williams
Joe Williams
Joe Williams
1918 - 1999
vocalist
, James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
vocalist
, Wayne Newton and many others. Bellson also wrote more than a dozen books on drums and percussion.

In 1994, Bellson, a six-time Grammy Award nominee, received an American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1998 was named with fellow drummers Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
b.1926
drums
, Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
and Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
as one of four "Living Legends of Music," earning an American Drummers Achievement Award from the Zildjian Company. In March 2007, Bellson and 35 other musicians received the Living Jazz Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and in June 2007 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) inducted him as a Living Legend in the ASCAP Wall of Fame ceremony at New York City's Lincoln Center. Bellson earned four honorary doctorates, the most recent from DePaul University in Chicago.

Perhaps more important than any of these honors is the fact that no one ever had an unkind word to say about Louie Bellson. Throughout his life and career he remained the quintessential gentleman, always willing to share his time and knowledge with others. In the end, that is what matters most, and Louie Bellson will be remembered as much for his abiding decency as for his marvelous talents.

Home Is Where the Cookin' Is



On March 26, Betty and I were at The Outpost Performing Space to see and hear the rapidly improving Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra directed by trumpeter Bobby Shew

Bobby Shew
Bobby Shew
b.1941
trumpet
. The small venue was packed and the band was smokin' from the downbeat, scampering briskly through Belgian trumpeter Bert Joris' picturesque opener, "Magic Box." Other highlights in the first set included the engaging interplay between Shew and bassist Colin Dougall on Frank Mantooth's stellar arrangement of "Mean to Me," trombonist Ed Ulman (playing his last gig with the orchestra) taking command on Tom Garling's "Outside In," terrific charts by Tom Kubis ("When You're Smiling") and Pete Myers ("Love for Sale"), another Joris composition, the turbulent "Nuees D'Orage" (Storm Clouds), Ulman's charming "Emily's Gray Bossa," and splendid turns by the other soloists—trumpeters Brad Dubbs and Henry Estrada, alto Glenn Kostur, tenor Lee Taylor, baritone Aaron Lovato and pianist Chris Ishee.

The second set opened with Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
's "Song for Bilbao," followed by one of the evening's unequivocal high spots, Kostur's mind-blowing solo on Bill Holman
Bill Holman
Bill Holman

band/orchestra
's arrangement of "Stella by Starlight" and Taylor's evocative feature, the Chris Walden
Chris Walden
Chris Walden

arranger
arrangement of "Here's That Rainy Day." As we'd agreed to leave at 9:30, Betty and I stayed only for another Joris composition, "Blue Alert" (solos by Kostur and Shew), departing as Bobby introduced the next number, the Brazilian ballad "Pra Dizer Adeus" (To Say Goodbye). And with that we said our goodbyes, but not before agreeing with Shew that "the band sounds better than ever."

A Day at the Opera

There are times when a chance remark can lead one down pathways that are as inspiring as they are informative. Case in point: While attending a Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Lucia di Lammermoor in February, I happened to overhear a woman in the row ahead of us mention that she leads a jazz group, so I gave her my card and asked that she send an e-mail and let me know more about it. Her name is Susan Corley, and two years ago she formed Entourage, an ensemble that includes voices, piano, flute, trumpet, saxophone, guitar, bass guitar and percussion. Here, mostly in her own words, is how it came about.

Corley, who was trained as a classical singer and has a master's degree in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston, had been studying for a number of years with Donna McRae in Albuquerque. Two years ago, she writes, "I was coming home from a voice lesson when two men [tried] to rob me at knife point. I realized then that what they say about one's life passing before one's eyes is indeed true." Corley spent the next few weeks in bed recovering from the ordeal, thinking all the while about what to do with the rest of her life. "One of the answers to my question," she writes, "was that I wanted to sing and revisit the music of the Carpenters [pop stars Karen and Richard Carpenter]. I not only wanted to sing it, but I wanted to create a group that could reproduce a similar sound instrumentally. I rounded up some of my classical friends...and from there went looking for some pop / rock musicians who would be interested...I also talked several of my singer friends into being back-up singers to try and [emulate] Karen and Richard's overdubbing....

"The original thought was that we would share a concert [performance] with one of our torch singer friends and that would be it. The actual result turned out to be a wonderful benefit concert for a young boy who had a rare genetic disorder. A few weeks before the concert, [a local television station] called to ask the name of the group. I drove around for a while and thought of the name Entourage, because I was hoping that perhaps someone would like us and we would eventually have people follow to hear us. The concert was well received and we had an absolute blast. Afterward, several people asked if we were playing anywhere around town. I turned to my fellow musicians and they said, 'Yeah, we're in! Let's keep it going!'

"We then decided that as much as we loved the Carpenters, we would branch out into other types of music. We began working on jazz standards, having great fun doing some of Diana Krall

Diana Krall
Diana Krall
b.1964
piano
's and Sammy Davis Jr.'s arrangements. We...added a trumpet player and now do a sweet version of Chet Baker
Chet Baker
Chet Baker
1929 - 1988
trumpet
's 'Let's Get Lost.' When I sat back and looked at all the talent in the group, I realized that we had the ability to [play] a broad spectrum of music. [To date] we've performed everything from Nat "King" Cole
Nat
Nat "King" Cole
1919 - 1965
piano
to the Beatles to zydeco to Mozart. We're an eclectic ensemble that can perform classical music at a wedding, then turn around and perform jazz or rock at the reception. The group has performed for promotional events, memorial services, benefits, private parties and other events. We have a larger ensemble of twelve and a smaller jazz ensemble, The Entourage Quartet. I am truly blessed to be working with such talented and incredibly spirited people. You can check us out at our website, www.entourageabq.com"

Thanks, Susan, for sharing the captivating story behind Entourage. I'm glad I asked.

On the Horizon...

In May, big-band enthusiasts from across the country (and elsewhere) will gather at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel for the semi-annual concert marathon sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute. "A Swingin' Affair," set for May 21-24, will feature twenty big bands plus the usual films and panel discussions that help make these get-togethers so entertaining. Among the bands are those led by Les Hooper

Les Hooper
b.1940
, John Altman, Frank Capp
Frank Capp
Frank Capp
b.1931
drums
, Ann Patterson, Chris Walden, Roger Neumann
Roger Neumann
Roger Neumann
b.1941
sax, tenor
, Gordon Goodwin
Gordon Goodwin
Gordon Goodwin
b.1955
composer/conductor
, Bill Watrous
Bill Watrous
Bill Watrous
b.1939
trombone
, Carl Saunders
Carl Saunders
Carl Saunders
b.1942
trumpet
, Emil Richards, Med Flory
Med Flory
Med Flory
1926 - 2014
sax, tenor
, Alf Clausen, Tom Kubis and Ron Jones, plus a tribute to the late Bob Florence
Bob Florence
Bob Florence
1932 - 2008
band/orchestra
by Florence's Limited Edition ensemble. Even though the time is growing short, you may still try to register by calling 562-985-7065 or going online to www.lajazzinstitute.org

One week earlier, from May 13-16, composer / arranger / saxophonist Kim Richmond

Kim Richmond
Kim Richmond

saxophone
, always one of the mainstays at the LAJI big-band events, will host the annual Northwoods Jazz Camp / Jazz Party at the Holiday Acres Resort in Rhinelander, WI, continuing the big-band format that was started last year.

A faculty of jazz professionals will teach instrumental and vocal master classes, improvisation, Jazz listening, combo and big-band playing, with combo concerts each evening (open to the public) wherein advanced students will sit in with the pros. On the final night, the big band will perform. A major "perk" will be students hanging with the faculty at meals, story sessions and jam sessions. Afternoons are reserved for such activities as boating, fishing, swimming, water skiing, hiking, tennis, cookouts, volleyball and shuffleboard (with golf, horseback riding and a campground nearby).

Besides Richmond, faculty members include trumpeter Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins
Clay Jenkins
b.1964
trumpet
, trombonist Scott Whitfield
Scott Whitfield
Scott Whitfield
b.1963
trombone
, guitarist Tom Hynes, guitarist Lee Tomboulian, bassist Jeff Campbell
Jeff Campbell
b.1963
bass
, drummer Tim Davis and vocalist Betty Tomboulian. Tuition (meals included) is $795 for students, single occupancy room, $665 for students, double occupancy. No prior experience is required, and spouses are welcome free of charge except for meals. The camp can accommodate a maximum of 25-30 students ages 21 or older.

Rhinelander is three hours north of Madison, four hours east of Minneapolis and an hour north of Wausau. Holiday Acres is a year-round vacation resort on the shores of Lake Thompson, four miles from Rhinelander. For questions or information, e-mail JazzKim@kimrichmond.com

More Honors

In February, Marilyn Bergman, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, announced the twenty-six winners of the 2009 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards, a program established in 2002 to encourage talented young jazz composers from across the U.S. The recipients, ages 15-29, are chosen through a juried national competition. This year's composer / judges were John Fedchock

John Fedchock
John Fedchock
b.1957
trombone
, Jay Leonhart
Jay Leonhart
Jay Leonhart
b.1940
bass
and Phil Markowitz. The competition has been sponsored for the past four years by the Gibson Foundation, the philanthropic division of Gibson Guitar Corp. One of the winners, twenty-nine-year-old Rob Mosher
Rob Mosher
Rob Mosher

sax, soprano
of Brooklyn, recently released his debut big-band album, The Tortoise.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'! . . .


New and Noteworthy

1. Ed Vezinho / Jim Ward Big Band, With Friends Like These (Dream Box Music)
2. Dutch Jazz Orchestra, Moon Dreams (Challenge)
3. Bob Mintzer Big Band, Swing Out (MCG Jazz)
4. National Youth Jazz Orchestra, When You're Ready (NYJO)
5. Doug Hamilton Jazz Band, Untitled (OA2 Records)
6. Stan Kenton, Road Band '67 (Tantara Productions)
7. University of Toronto, Progression (UofT Jazz)
8. Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Song for Chico (Zoho)
9. Sound Assembly, Edge of the Mind (Beauport Jazz)
10. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Buleria, Solea y Rumba (Sea Breeze Vista)
11. Doncaster Jazz Orchestra, And Friends (DYJA)
12. DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, That Being Said (Jazzed Media)
13. Fat Cat Big Band, Angels Praying for Freedom (Smalls) 14. Pasadena City College Ensembles, Thanks for the Memories (PCC Jazz)
15. Sounds of Swing, Swinging on a Clear Day (No label)



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