From the start, Bellson had only ever done things the right way. His musical education had begun very early, his innate skill recognized at once by his father, Louis Bellson Sr., a musician who fostered the individual talents of all eight of his children, four girls and four boys, most whom would go on to music careers of their own. “My father played all instruments,” Bellson said. “And when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was really into drums. My dad came over to me and said, ‘I want you to go to the keyboard, and learn harmony and theory.’ And I said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to play piano, I want to play drums.’ He said, ‘I know. You keep on with the drums, but go to the keyboard, because I have a feeling you got a lot inside of you that needs to be expressed.’ Within six months, man. I couldn’t wait to get to the keyboard, because dad was right. There was something inside of here, not only in drums, but melody and harmony that had to come out.”
And so it did. Estimates vary for the number of compositions Bellson wrote throughout his life, for everything from big bands to small combos to movie scores to symphonies, because not all saw the light of day. “Albert Alva, my librarian, has got three boxes that are this high and this wide of lead sheets,” Bellson said in 2003, spreading his arms wide. “I’m talking about 2,000 lead sheets in there. I’d file through those every once in a while and look at that and put it on the piano and play it. ‘I like this; I’m going to write an arrangement for this.’”
But drums always came first, with Louis Sr. offering constant encouragement and instruction. “Dad said, ‘If you sit down at the drums and you got a four-bar solo, you have to play that solo right now. You can’t think ahead of what you want to do. Let it flow, because perfect coordination is when you think it and play it at the same time.’ If I’m reading a chart and I see an eight-bar drum solo come up, I can’t start thinking about that eight-bar solo because sure enough I’m putting this [points to head] ahead of this [points to heart].”
Bellson absorbed his lessons like a sponge, and by 13 he was already passing them along to students two or three times his age at his father’s music store in Moline, Illinois, and gigging every Tuesday night with a jazz quartet at the Rendezvous Club. “I had to be accompanied by a grownup because they sold liquor there,” he remembered. “But that kind of experience — you can’t buy that. You can’t learn it in school either.”
So began Bellson’s real education, the education of the stage, with teachers of legendary stature. Over the years he’d count Papa Jo Jones, Big Sid Catlett, long-time pal Buddy Rich, and his first idol, Gene Krupa, among his most important direct influences. But he looked everywhere for inspiration, not just to other drummers. And he was fortunate enough to work from the very start with some of the sharpest-eared, and often least-compromising bandleaders in the business. After his first big gig, with Benny Goodman, at age 19, those names started piling up at his feet, and never stopped.
From Basie and Gillespie he learned to trust his ears, and how to properly syncopate those ubiquitous double bass drum hits to accommodate the bass player. “Dizzy would turn around and say, ‘What kind of house are you building back there?’” Bellson said about the infamous trumpet player’s willingness to scold a young drummer whose enthusiasm led him to overplay. “But the pros always know that they must learn to listen, and that way if you want to make a couple of fills, you’ve got to find an open spot to do that. And you can only do that by listening.”
From Ellington, whom he called his “second father,” he learned to trust his own unique voice. “Duke used to say, ‘Make sure the drummers don’t try to emulate somebody else to the tee.’ You know, for a while there, everybody was trying to be like a Jo Jones or Gene Krupa. So many guys were trying to be like Gene it was ridiculous. Duke said, ‘Make sure the drummer has identification.’ You could listen and hear that’s Gene, that’s Buddy, that’s Jo Jones, that’s Big Sid Cattlet.”
And in time Bellson earned his rightful place in that pantheon. So anyone with an ear for it could tell within a few short bars — oh yeah, that’s Louie Bellson.