by Rick Mattingly
(b. Illinois USA July 6, 1924)
Best known as a big band drummer with phenomenal technique, Louie Bellson is also credited with popularizing the use of double bass drums. During his career he worked with such leaders as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and his wife, singer Pearl Bailey. He also led his own big band and was an active composer, clinician, and drum book author. He was known by many as one of the nicest guys in the music business.
When Bellson performed, you could hear the early swing that was predominant when he was coming up. You could also hear the more refined swing that he and his generation perfected in the heyday of the big bands. You heard the bop that flourished in the 1940s and ’50s. You heard modern rock and funk. But you didn't hear them isolated, one after another. Those influences were all present at the same time, and they gave Bellson’s playing a remarkable depth. He was simultaneously traditional and contemporary as all of his influences came together as one.
Born July 6, 1924 in Rock Falls, Illinois as Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, Louie Bellson grew up in a musical atmosphere. His father ran a music store in Moline, Illinois, and Louie learned to play drums and piano starting at age three, and also learned the basics of brass and string instruments during his youth. By his early teens he was giving lessons in his father's store, and he also became an accomplished tap dancer. “My mentors,” Bellson told Modern Drummer in 1991, “were Jo Jones, Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, Davey Tough, and Gene Krupa. Those early players were the innovators; they were the ones who started it. Max [Roach] always said that he learned so much from Jo Jones, and then after Max, here comes Tony Williams. Each guy picks up on what went before and then takes it a little further. But those early guys were the ones who really laid down the rules. I listen to records now by Baby Dodds, and I hear shades of Buddy Rich, of Gene Krupa, of Joe Morello. Even when I hear some of the early records by Chick Webb, I hear Buddy.”
Partially as a result of his tap dancing, Bellson became interested in the idea of using two bass drums. His drawing of a double bass kit earned him an “A” in a high school art class, but it was several years before he could persuade a drum company to build one for him. Gretsch finally produced the first one in the 1940.
“They credit me with being the first one to play two bass drums," Bellson said, “but I can remember when Ray McKinley was with Will Bradley, and he did a thing with two bass drums only. They used to do the boogie-woogie things with the eighth-note shuffle, and that’s where he would do the two bass drum thing. Then I came out shortly after that using two bass drums with a complete set. But he was actually the first to play two bass drums in public, and I think he deserves a lot of credit.”
When he was 16, Bellson won the national Gene Krupa drumming contest, and when he was 18 he worked with Ted FioRito and then with Benny Goodman for several months before going into military service. Afterward, he played with Goodman again and then worked with Tommy Dorsey.
Although he had come up in the swing era, Bellson kept his ears open to new styles, starting with bebop in the 1940s. “I was with Tommy Dorsey from 1947 through ’50,” Louie said, “and during that time bop was really at its strong point in New York. I tried to do a couple of things in Tommy’s band that I saw Kenny Clarke do, and the old man turned around and gave me one of those looks: ‘What the hell was that?’ I said, ‘Well, I went down and heard Bird [Charlie Parker] and Diz[zy Gillespie]…,’ and he said, ‘Oh no. No bebop here.’ Of course, later on he got tuned into it, but in the early days a lot of the bandleaders didn’t understand what was going on.
“But the minute I heard it,” Bellson said, “I figured that was the direction we were going to go. I could hear the wonderful relationship between the rhythm section and the rest of the band, and I enjoyed the complexity of the melodies that Bird was coming up with. They were really intricate patterns that demanded to be played by good players. But I knew that in order to have bebop happen in a big band, you would have to have all the players feel the same way. It would be kind of rough to have a bebop drummer and a bebop rhythm section playing with a hard swinging big band. That wouldn’t make it.”
In 1950 Bellson co-led a septet with Charlie Shavers that included vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, and then played briefly with Harry James before joining Duke Ellington in 1951. In addition to playing drums with the Ellington orchestra, Bellson also contributed several arrangements including "The Hawk Talks" and the drum feature "Skin Deep."
After marrying singer Pearl Bailey in 1953, Bellson left Ellington to become Bailey's music director and drummer, a role he continued until Bailey's death in 1990. In between, he worked with Jazz at the Philharmonic, recorded A Drum Is a Woman with Ellington in 1956, played with the Dorsey Brothers in 1955–56 (including the Dorseys’ TV show on which Elvis Presley made one of his first national television appearances), subbed for Sonny Payne with Count Basie in 1962, and occasionally worked with Goodman.
He also kept his ears open to a new music called rock ’n’ roll. “When rock ’n’ roll came in,” Bellson recalled, “a lot of guys from my era said, ‘These guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ But I said, ‘Wait a minute. They’re laying down something new.’ So I always listen to a lot of the younger guys to pick up on what they’re doing. I’ve always tried to listen to different kinds of records: rock, Latin…. I took some lessons from Humberto Morales years ago, because back then nobody really played the Latin rhythms. We played cha-chas and rumbas, but not the way they should have been played. Buddy Rich and I used to wonder why some of the jazz drummers didn’t get into the real sambas and things. So I started taking some lessons from Humberto, and after that Dizzy Gillespie showed me a lot of the Afro-Cuban things. Then Stan Getz brought some people up from Brazil, and they started playing the bossa nova. Shelly Manne was the one who really hipped me to the bossa nova. So you have to keep abreast. All the guys that I was brought up on—like Big Sid Catlett—used to say, ‘Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep learning.’ And I feel the same way.”
Starting in 1967 Bellson led his own big band, the Louie Bellson Explosion, which featured such prominent sidemen as Cat Anderson, Conte Candoli, Bobby Shew, Don Menza, and Pete Christlieb. He recorded frequently for the Pablo and Concord labels with his big band, as well as with such musicians as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Louie Armstrong, Stan Getz, Joe Pass, and many others. In all, Bellson appeared on over 200 albums and was a six-time Grammy nominee. He also wrote numerous compositions and several drum instruction books, and he served as a vice-president at Remo, Inc. He was an avid clinician who appeared at several Percussive Arts Society International Conventions.
In 1978 he was inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame and in 1985 he was inducted into the Modern Drummer magazine Hall of Fame. In 1994 he received the American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1998 he was among the first group of drummers to receive the American Drummers Achievement Award from the Zildjian cymbal company. He received four honorary doctorates, and in 2003 a historical marker was dedicated at the Rock Falls home in which he was born. In 2007 he received the Living Jazz Legends award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and that same year Bellson was inducted as a Living Legend in the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame.
After suffering a stroke in the late ’90s, Bellson's activities were somewhat curtailed, but he kept playing whenever possible. In 2006 he released the CD The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet, which showcased both his drumming and composing. In 2008 he and trumpeter Clark Terry released Louie & Clark Expedition 2.
And he always kept his youthful outlook. “One thing I learned from my mentors years ago was, ‘Know where you came from and know where you’re going,’” Bellson said. “Which means, know where you got this—who the innovators were—and also pick up on what’s going on now. That’s what I tell the youngsters. I learned from my father and Duke Ellington that music is music. I don’t categorize it. If you want to talk about fusion, or country & western, or whatever, it’s still music. And all the great players had that same attitude.”
Bellson died on February 14, 2009.