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Louie Bellson: Tasteful Drummer, Sweeter Guy

Jack Bowers By

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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.

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