Louie Bellson: Drumming’s Patron Saint

At 21 years old, Louie Bellson was already on top of the world, and facing a stark choice. On the one hand, the trappings of fame beckoned like beautiful sirens — glorious mirages of consequence-free excess at his fingertips. A temptation no different in 1945 than it is now. On the other hand, the road to longevity, arrow straight and unadorned, with rewards that took a special set of eyes to see.

Bellson’s star had risen fast. Blindingly fast. In the three short years since he’d launched his career by handily dispatching 40,000 other hungry young drummers to win the Slingerland National Gene Krupa Drum Competition, he’d swung with heavyweights like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, appeared in two hit films populated by Hollywood glitterati, and rode out two years of the War honing lethal chops in the U.S. Army drum corps.

But there’s no mystery as to which path Bellson chose, then or at any other time. In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, changed the course of music forever, and impacted countless lives in the music world and beyond, Bellson, like some mythical creature of virtue, seemed immune to all the classic pitfalls — the drugs, the booze, the promise of fast cash, the inflated ego he had every right to indulge. All of it he shrugged off with a smile, retiring at the end of every day — every day — to jot down some notes for posterity. Notes that would evolve into thousands of separate compositions to be played all over the world by symphonies, big bands, jazz combos — or never to be played at all, simply written because he had the music in him and it needed to come out.

And through it all, not even a casual admirer could ever muster anything but starry-eyed, glowing praise for Bellson — for delivering the beast of double bass, for driving a stake into the heart of pre-civil rights bigotry with an interracial marriage, for his almost superhuman generosity, kindness, and humility. “World’s greatest” titles get thrown around a lot — Rich, Krupa, Bellson, the Big Three, spent their careers trading that title back and forth like fours in a drum battle. But Bellson had it all. Long before his passing on Valentine’s Day of this year at the age of 84 triggered the inevitable rush of memorial fawning, Louie Bellson was, to those who knew him, simply the greatest.

A Typical Situation

It was the 21-year-old Bellson that Ed Shaughnessy first met outside of the The Strand Theater in New York after a Tommy Dorsey concert. Shaughnessy was a 16-year-old kid from Jersey City with a year and a half of drum lessons under his belt and not much else. Ahead of him lay an illustrious career capped by a decades-long run in the drum chair with The Tonight Show Band With Doc Severinsen, not to mention a long, close friendship with Bellson, but on this night he was just a nervous kid standing outside the stage door clutching a note from his drum instructor, Bill West, who knew Bellson well enough to know any student he sent him would be received in kind.

“He comes out,” Shaughnessy remembers. “And just the friendliest, warmest greeting. ‘Hi! How are you? Who are you?’

‘Oh, I’m Eddie from Jersey City.’

‘Oh. And you’re a student of Bill West? Come on up to the dressing room.’ Right away, you know? Well, that proceeded to be the beginning of quite a few sessions where he would tell me to either come to the theater or come to the hotel where he stayed. And he would give me lessons — tips. He was studying finger control with the great Murray Spivak in California, who had developed that system to a very high level. And he’d say, ‘Hey listen. Watch this thing I got from Murray for the left-hand finger.’ Now you can imagine for a kid — I didn’t have anything much. I used to roll my drums around in a wagon. What I mean is, I came from not too much. He couldn’t have cared less. He treated me like I was a brother drummer equal with him.”

And there it is, the common denominator in anyone’s story of meeting Louie Bellson: “He treated me like an equal, a brother, a friend.” The remarkable thing about Shaughnessy’s story is that it wasn’t remarkable at all. Whatever your age, whatever your position on the totem pole, Bellson was ready to give you all of himself, any time, anywhere.

Magic Man

Bellson’s playing was an open book. Literally, in the sense that he wrote a dozen or so on instruction, but also in that he had no secrets, no carefully guarded signature moves, nothing he wouldn’t gladly demonstrate, explain, or dole out for free to anyone who asked. Because the thing that made Bellson Bellson was something else, something fleeting, illusory, revealing its full power only in later listening — an entire universe of rhythmic mojo brewing just below the surface. “You would stand there and watch what he was doing,” says Andy Weis, a long-time Bellson friend and protégé who studied his playing from every angle. “But then you’d take it home and listen and say, ‘Holy mackerel, did I see him do that?’”

His contemporaries have difficulty expressing Bellson’s individuality in words, often citing his versatility in a general sense. “I don’t know anything better to say than that you could hear four bars and you know it’s Louie Bellson,” says Shaughnessy. “You can’t say that about a whole lot of people on any instrument.”

You could point to the “isms,” signature moves like his ability to swing all day on just a ride cymbal, without the aid of the 2 and 4 on the hi-hat; or the patented six-note lick he’d often use to set up a horn figure — RLRR on the rack and floor toms followed by left and right bass drum hits — devastatingly simple, but a combination given special impact by Bellson’s hands and feet alone.

“I used to play in front of a mirror, a big mirror, and watch myself,” Bellson said, attempting to explain his powers of illusion. “And I always wanted to make my motions graceful, not ugly or stiff. It’s like watching an ice skater skate beautifully. Every motion is like a fan dance, you know? That’s very important. The motions. Because when you play fast tempos, you have to relax. If you don’t relax, you’re going to stiffen up and you can’t forge ahead. The breathing is very important.”

It was with this fan dance that Bellson could hypnotize even the most astute observer, his hands drawing smooth, lightning-quick arches as notes cascaded in perfect dynamic harmony. “His playing was always graceful, elegant, and supremely relaxed,” says Peter Erskine. “He had beautiful hands, old-school hands, the hands of a master.”

Take Bellson’s single-stroke roll, widely regarded as a showcase of technical perfection — clean as a surgeon’s scalpel at any volume, any speed, the envy of his contemporaries. “Joe Morello used to tell me, he said, ‘Your single-stroke roll, I can’t get it up to that speed.’ And Roy Haynes told me the same thing. I thought that was a compliment. I said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve always had that, even when I was real young.’ I think it’s because I got better and better working with Murray Spivak using the fingers as well as the wrists and the arms. And that made it happen.”

Always the diligent student, no matter how much playing he did in the ensuing years, Bellson never let the foundations of his technique go slack. “I’m still working on the rudiments,” he said in 2003, at the age of 78. “You can never have enough of that because that’s basically what the basis of all this is — single roll, double roll, all the flams — I do that every day. It’s important to do a little sight reading. I still work out of my books, the 4/4 book and the Odd Times book. I try to get to the drum set at least four times a week to feel comfortable behind a set of drums. Because as you get a little older, you know, your muscles don’t react as fast as they should, I don’t care who it is. You try to keep up what you can do, and do it right.”

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Learning Greatness

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.

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Living By The Code

Maybe the most important lesson of Bellson’s life was the one he needed the least help learning: strong relationships trump strong technique every time. So when, for instance, a fellow student Bellson crossed paths with in Murray Spivak’s practice room in 1949, a guy named Remo Belli, went on years later to start one of the world’s largest drum companies, it was Bellson he offered to let in on the ground floor, employing him as one of the first testers of his new products, one of which was a revolutionary new plastic drumhead that would forever change the way the instrument was played. Bellson, in turn, repaid Remo with a lifetime of loyalty as an endorser, eventually earning the title of vice president, in 1964.

“You can’t bounce around from one thing to another and take advantage of people.” Bellson said. “You have to be aboveboard. I never had that problem. If I’m going to say that I’ll do something, then I’ll do it. “I remember the time when I was doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson before Eddie [Shaughnessy] came out. Whenever they came to California, they’d ask me to do the month or whatever it was. And during that time, Sammy Davis came on. He came up to me later and said, ‘Can you play with me Friday night? I got a very important gig up here at the San Carlos Theatre. I’ll give you whatever you want. I said, ‘I can’t do it, Sammy. I’m committed to play The Tonight Show,’ which was way less money. He said, ‘Well, can’t you get a sub?’ I said, ‘No, because I think Johnny is going to feature me on that Friday night, so I have to work with him.’ That’s being loyal, you know?”

Shirking the temptation to cash in on the short run paid off in the end with one of the most prolific, memorable careers in the history of entertainment. Estimates on how many albums Bellson appeared on are as shrouded in speculation as the volume of his compositions. But for a guy known mostly for playing with bands, rather than for studio call work, it’s an impressive number however you slice it. “People say that he’s on 200 recordings. Bulls**t. He’s on more like 500,” says Weis, who’s made a habit of tracking down rare and obscure Bellson recordings over the years, stuff like 1954’s Boogie Woogie Piano And Drums, a duo recording with Meade “Lux” Lewis, or 1970’s Soul On Top, a bizarre jazz/R&B mashup that featured James Brown (James Brown?!) out in front of a Bellson-led big band, and dozens more even Bellson himself lost track of over the years.

“When he was signing autographs one time, someone came up to him and asked what was it like playing with John Coltrane,” Weis remembers. “And he said, ‘I never played with John Coltrane.’ And the guy was like, ‘Yeah you did,’ and handed him an album with him and Coltrane.”

Courting Controversy.

Bellson’s life took a sharp turn when, in 1952, he met and quickly married Pearl Bailey, an African American jazz singer and actress. Talking heads all over the country called it a publicity stunt, and Bellson’s own father threatened to disown him. But ignoring them like he ignored every other negative influence in his life, he whisked Bailey away to London to get married far from the din of disapproving voices. For the month he and Bailey were overseas, Bellson persuaded Ed Shaughnessy to sub for him in Ellington’s band.

“You can imagine how much fun I thought that would be,” Shaughnessy recalls, laughing. “And I said, ‘No way.’

‘Well if you don’t take it, Duke says I can’t get married.’ Now I know he lied in his shoes, you know? But I felt I owed him so much.”

Bellson left Ellington’s band in early 1953 to become the drummer/conductor of Bailey’s band, which remained his main musical focus for the next 20 years, punctuated by several notable forays, including 1954’s Jazz At The Philharmonic, with Norman Granz, which Bellson ranked as one of the most significant highlights of his career. “I already had credentials like Ellington and Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Harry James. But now he opened me up to Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Lester Young,” Bellson said. “And Roy Eldridge and of course Oscar Peterson were on JATP too.”

But it was playing with Bailey that he had some of his most unforgettable experiences. “I don’t know of any other drummer who’s slept in Lincoln’s bed — twice,” says Remo Belli, referring to Bellson and Bailey having logged more appearances at the White House, and played for more presidents, than any other entertainer besides Bob Hope. It’s not hard to see why. “Louie was so easy to get along with,” says Belli. “And when you’re at these functions, what do you do? You don’t talk deep politics. You yak a little bit, play a little bit, Pearl sings a little bit, and everybody relaxes.”

Defying odds, Bellson and Bailey remained inseparable until her death in 1990, their 39-year marriage a sturdy beacon amidst the nation’s violent struggle with the issue of racial equality. “I think we’ve proven one thing to a lot of people that didn’t realize it,” Bellson told Jet magazine in the December 18, 1980 issue. “That when two people dig one another, love one another, there are no barriers. We’re friends. Like Pearl says, when you call yourself a friend, that goes very deep. When you’re a friend, that’s something for life.”

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Tending The Legacy

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.