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Louie Bellson (1924-2009)

Louie Bellson, one of the last great drummers of the big band era whose twin bass drums and high-energy performance provided the powerful rhythmic foundation of orchestras ranging from Benny Goodman to Duke Ellington, died on February 14th 2009.
Gordon Rytmeister

A tribute to the late great
Louie Bellson

Louie Bellson (1924-2009)
by Gordon Rytmeister share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more


I was saddened last week to hear of the passing of the great Louie Bellson. Louie was really the last of the great swing drummers. It’s a sad loss to the worlds of drumming, jazz and music in general. Louie’s passing has given me reason to reflect on his career and consequently marvel at the impact he has had on my own drumming development and education, and to ponder his ongoing legacy. I’ll address that later, but first I’d like to give a brief overview of Louie’s incredible career and a glimpse of the gentleman behind that huge set of drums!

Louie Bellson was born on July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Illinois. He had a musical gift, studying both classical music and becoming a jazz drummer at the same time.

Louie’s drumming style combined elements of the styles of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich with the silky smooth feel of Papa Jo Jones and his own addition of twin bass drums. He was both a fine accompanist and soloist of the highest order.

Louie worked in all the great bands of his day including those led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Harry James as well as leading his own Big Band later in his career. Louie became both the drummer and musical director for vocalist, Pearl Bailey, (to whom he was married), and also worked with vocalists Mel Tormé, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. His ability to play such a diverse range of music, from accompanying the most sensitive of singers to the roar of the big band, is a testament to his musicality on the drums.

Louie achieved the respect and admiration of all those whom he touched, from the best of the best in 20th century music to the millions of drum students who attended his many clinic over the years. Duke Ellington once referred to Louie as “not only the world’s greatest drummer...(but also) the world’s greatest musician!”

My first encounter with Louie’s music was on a record my mother bought for me very early on in my drumming studies. It was a compilation called “Kings of the Drums” and featured four Big Band tracks including, Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” with Gene Krupa at Carnegie Hall in 1939 and Louie Bellson’s tour de force, “Skin Deep”. I was knocked out by Louie’s precision and silky groove. That record made a big impression on me and had a lot to do with my love of big band music.

A few years later, I was studying with John Costa, who was a devotee of Louie Bellson’s drumming. One day as homework, John set me the task to write a drum part from a Louie Bellson Big Band track. Well, in my naivety, I effectively did a transcription of Louie’s drumming rather than a “chart” including every possible snare drum nuance and hi hat variation... No wonder I only got through sixteen bars! At my next lesson, John was a little bemused at my misinterpretation of the task and put me straight explaining how a drum chart should be a guide to the feel, form and dynamics of the piece, rather than a note-for-note transcription. This, as you can imagine, was an extremely valuable lesson in both writing and reading charts. However, it was only recently that I realised just how much value I derived from misinterpreting the task and transcribing those sixteen bars of Louie Bellson comping. That sixteen bars has some of the hippest left-hand phrasing I’ve ever heard. It became the basis of my jazz comping vocabulary.
 
Then in 1991 I was thrilled to actually get the chance to meet and play back-to-back with Louie when I toured New Zealand with Don Burrows. We played three concerts together and Louie did a number of drum clinics which I enthusiastically attended. There were also late night jam sessions with members of the touring party and local players in each town. As you might imagine, I got to spend some time together with Louie and saw first hand that all the stories were very true; Louie Bellson was indeed a sweet, humble and very kind gentleman. Gordon Rytmeister with Louie Bellson in 1991
He took Lyn Buchanan, the great New Zealand drummer, and me to dinner one night and we talked drums from start to finish. I’ll never forget that week. Louie was explosive on the drums. It was like a personal lesson in drumming history every night and he truly is the sweetest man you could ever hope to meet.

Some years later, Louie came to Australia as a very special guest with Bob Coassin’s Superforce Big Band, a band with whom I regularly played. (I got a lot of mileage telling people that Louie was my “sub”!). I remember Craig Walters, the band’s Tenor soloist telling me about the experience. Prior to Louie’s arrival Craig said that he’d expected that Louie would be “an old guy with lots of chops” but was pleasantly surprised to find that Louie was indeed one of the world's great groovers with a very deep, undeniably swinging feel that compelled the band to play better than ever. Once again, I learnt a great deal from the master!

So if the magnitude and depth of the effect that Louie Bellson has had on me, a white boy from Sydney, is anything to go by, his legacy will live on forever in the players of the future all over the world who’ve been touched directly and indirectly by this wonderful, musical man. Thank you Louie.

Gordon Rytmeister Feb 2009.
 

© 2009 Gordon Rytmeister


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