Home » Jazz Articles » Louie Bellson: Tasteful Drummer, Sweeter Guy


Big Band Report

Louie Bellson: Tasteful Drummer, Sweeter Guy


Sign in to view read count
To say that drummer extraordinaire Louie Bellson, 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, 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's band. He was still a teen-ager when Benny Goodman 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's orchestra, leaving in 1949 to study composition, analyzing scores by Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky and other classical composers. He joined the Harry James band in 1950 where he became friends with trombonist Juan Tizol who had previously been a member of the Duke Ellington 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, 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, 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's touring Jazz at the Philharmonic, supporting such stars as Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and a host of others. He joined Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey'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 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, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, James Brown, 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, Elvin Jones and Max Roach 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. 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's "Song for Bilbao," followed by one of the evening's unequivocal high spots, Kostur's mind-blowing solo on Bill Holman's arrangement of "Stella by Starlight" and Taylor's evocative feature, the Chris Walden 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's and Sammy Davis Jr.'s arrangements. We...added a trumpet player and now do a sweet version of Chet Baker'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 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, John Altman, Frank Capp, Ann Patterson, Chris Walden, Roger Neumann, Gordon Goodwin, Bill Watrous, Carl Saunders, Emil Richards, Med Flory, Alf Clausen, Tom Kubis and Ron Jones, plus a tribute to the late Bob Florence 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, 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, trombonist Scott Whitfield, guitarist Tom Hynes, guitarist Lee Tomboulian, bassist Jeff Campbell, 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 [email protected]

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, Jay Leonhart 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 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)

Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Read ECM Records Touchstones: Part 1
Building a Jazz Library
ECM Records Touchstones: Part 1
Read ECM Records Touchstones: Part 2
Building a Jazz Library
ECM Records Touchstones: Part 2
Read Kurt Rosenwinkel: Minor Blues

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and includes upcoming jazz events near you.