Louie Bellson: Jazz drummer and composer who played with Duke Ellington’s band

Although he was with Duke for only a couple of years, Louie Bellson must be regarded as the last of the great Ellingtonians, for he had a lasting effect on the band. He replaced Sonny Greer, who had been the drummer in the Ellington band since it began in the Twenties, and he brought in a new and powerful style that brought Ellington’s music out of the almost classic style of the Forties into the new, more aggressive sounds of the Fifties.

Bellson’s long experience in guiding the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman from the drum chair flowered into maturity with Ellington. His then unique device of using two pedal-operated bass drums gave the band a new power, and yet his playing was always tasteful. He had firm control of the bands and guided them with an amazing technique.

Were it not for the almost supernatural Buddy Rich, Bellson could have been considered to be the very greatest big band drummer. But where Rich was flashy, Bellson was more subtle and complemented the music of the bands in which he played; when Rich played, brilliant though he was, he tended to crowd out the other musicians. In addition, Bellson was perhaps the only man who could play a 15-minute drum solo and sustain the rapt attention of an audience throughout.

The list of the big bands for which Bellson played covered a wide range of the very best in jazz. He changed the character of each of them for the better, and as well as Ellington’s, they included the bands of Benny Goodman – whom he joined when he was 17 – Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Count Basie, as well as the many fine bands that he later led himself.

As a boy, Bellson spent much of his time in his father’s music store in Moline, Illinois, where over the years he learned to play most of the instruments in stock. But it was the drums that attracted him most, and he was still in school when he developed the technique of using two bass drums at once, one for the left foot and one for the right. He had tap-danced at a local nightclub with the barrelhouse pianist Speckled Red and he thought that this helped him to play the two bass drums with such dexterity.

In 1940, when Bellson was 16, he won a nationwide drumming contest sponsored by Gene Krupa, an idol of swing fans. The Second World War caused a shortage of band musicians and as a result Bellson was swept straight from high school into the Ted Fio Rito band when it passed through Moline. From here, Benny Goodman hired him late in 1942. Three years in the Army interrupted his progress, but he returned to Goodman in 1946. Although not the most famous of his bands, the Goodman band of this time was to have a powerful effect on big band style.

Goodman was a perfectionist. “He taught me how to listen, how to play in a big band, and how to swing. He wanted the sections playing in tempo on their own,” Bellson said. “He needed them to keep time without relying on the rhythm section. We’d have to sit through the entire rehearsal until Benny added the bass, drums and piano.”

When work in the Goodman band dipped, he moved to Tommy Dorsey’s band. Goodman and Dorsey were both, in their separate ways, monsters. Goodman was mindlessly cruel, whereas Dorsey’s sadism was usually calculated. But even amongst such a great band of musicians Bellson’s talent was outstanding and Dorsey valued him highly. Bellson, a slight man, had a huge appetite. Dorsey would show him off to friends by taking him to a restaurant and ordering half a dozen T-bone steaks, which Bellson would swiftly devour.

In 1950, business slowed for Tommy Dorsey and Bellson joined the resurgent Harry James band. He became friends with Juan Tizol, a valve trombonist who had previously been with Duke Ellington.

“We would play before 3,000 at the Hollywood Palladium,” recalled Bellson, “but I remember some of those navy and air force bases where we played to 14 or 15 thousand people.”

Then, in 1951, came what became known as the “Great James Raid”. “The phone rang in Tizol’s flat,” Bellson remembered. “It was Duke and he asked Juan to rejoin the Ellington band and to bring Willie Smith, Harry’s alto-sax star, and me along with him.” This was to tear the heart out of James’s band, but he took it in good part and wished the musicians well.

On the face of it, things didn’t look good for Bellson. He was the only white musician in a black band – then a serious problem – and not only were there no band parts written for a drummer, but most of the music existed mainly because the musicians knew it by heart. Also, the band was about to embark on a tour of the Deep South. “We’re going to make you Haitian,” said Ellington, and that was how Bellson was described to avoid trouble.

Bellson brought an original composition with him that became a permanent part of the Ellington repertoire and took the band’s big band sound into a new dimension. “Skin Deep”, a drum solo set in the band which covered two sides of a 78 record, became a huge hit. Soon after, Bellson wrote another seminal hit, “The Hawk Talks” (Hawk was Harry James’s nickname).

Whilst he had been with James, Tizol and his wife had often told Bellson stories of the singer Pearl Bailey and said that he should meet her. “When we were in Washington DC with the Ellington band this young lady came up and said, ‘Well, I’m Pearl,’ and I said ‘Well, I’m Louie.’ Four days later we got married in London.”

Bellson left Ellington early in 1953 to become Pearl Bailey’s musical director, although he returned to Duke on special occasions over the years. In 1954 he began a long association with Norman Granz, appearing in Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, sometimes in duet with Buddy Rich. Over the years, Granz teamed Bellson with Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and a host of other luminaries.

The drummer joined Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey for a year in 1955 and made a Scandinavian tour with Count Basie’s band in 1962. That year, he also composed a jazz ballet called The Marriage Vows. He rejoined Ellington from 1965 to 1966 and then moved back to Harry James in 1966.

From 1967 he led his own big band based in North Hollywood and this included ex-Ellingtonians and many of the jazz stars from the Los Angeles studios. During the Seventies he also taught at jazz workshops in a variety of universities.

He was shattered when Pearl Bailey died in 1990, but picked himself up, and in 1991 met Francine Wright, a computer engineer, and they were married in September 1992. In 1993, Bellson travelled to New York where he assembled a potent big band of leading musicians to perform and record Duke Ellington’s seminal “Black, Brown and Beige” suite.

“There were ordinary nights when the music was very good,” said Bellson. “But there were others when you had to pinch yourself and ask if it was real. How do you explain that? You don’t. I had moments like that with Duke and Benny and also with Tommy Dorsey and with my dear late wife Pearl.

Steve Voce

Louie Bellson, drummer, bandleader, composer: born Rock Falls, Illinois 6 July 1924; married 1952 Pearl Bailey (deceased) (two daughters), 1992 Francine Wright; died Los Angeles 14 February 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?