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.

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