The last two decades of Bellson’s life saw him splitting his time between Northern and Southern California with his second wife, Francine, a physicist with degrees from MIT and Harvard who placed her own career on the shelf when they married in 1992 to throw herself full-time into managing Bellson’s business affairs. Meanwhile, he continued to play as many as 90 shows a year, from international concerts to honorary events in his home state of Illinois, like the Louie Bellson Jazz Festival and Louie Bellson Heritage Days.
He was also still attending all the trade shows, where he often ran into Terry Loose, owner of the San Jose-based Power Wrist Builders. What he didn’t know is that Loose also owned Musician’s Warehouse, a music store in San Jose that Bellson walked into one day in 1999, looking for a place to store his drum set, one of about seven he had stashed in strategic locations all over the world at the time to be shipped to the nearest gig at a moment’s notice.
“So he put it in there, and I became his roadie for Northern California,” says Loose. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m a little old to be a roadie, but I’m a roadie for Louie, so it was kind of neat. At the same time, in ’99, I formed a big band again. And I told Louie, ‘But I don’t have any music.’ And this glimmer in his eye comes up and he said, ‘Well, I’ve got music.’”
So began another enduring musical partnership in the Bellson saga, where, from ’99 until a few months before he passed away, Bellson would come by Musician’s Warehouse every other Monday night to share selections of his original compositions, many unpublished, and rehearse with the band, for no reason other than the simple joy of playing. And, of course, as word spread of who was occupying the drum chair at these rehearsals, the caliber of the musicians dropping by steadily rose.
A few years earlier, Bellson had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But whatever toll the ailment was taking on his health, its toll on his drumming was minimal. “It was interesting because his playing would just get softer and softer and softer, but the time was always still there, and everything else was still there,” says Andy Weis, who also attended many of those rehearsals at Musician’s Warehouse. But to most observers, Bellson seemed as invincible as ever, still burning it up, masterfully leading the band, like he always had, through chart after chart. “I didn’t get to play much,” Loose says, laughing. “But that was fine.”
So even as his legend loomed larger than ever, a mythical figure descended out of a time when giants ruled the stage, Bellson played free concerts at schools, jazz festivals, or open houses in front of a handful of dazzled spectators at a time, still swinging the hell out of every set right up until the end. Not because he needed to, but because the music was in him, and it had to come out.