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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Louie Bellson: A great drummer dies, but his beat goes on

Photo right: Louis Bellson playing in Duke Ellington's orchestra. Trumpet greats Cat Anderson and Clark Terry are to his left.

Louie Bellson died Saturday at the age of 84 from the complications of Parkinson's Disease. He was a premier jazz musician.

Louie graduated from Moline High Scho
ol ten years before I did. But when he graduated, he had already established himself as a major jazz drummer. The year I graduated, Louis married singer Pearl Bailey. It was an inter-racial marriage at a time when few people dared to cross the racial barriers.

I took my first trumpet lessons in the music store owned by Louie's dad. During those weekly lessons, his sister Mary would keep aspiring young musicians posted on Louis' career, as a reminder of how far we could go if we worked hard to develop our talents. There was a great deal of local pride in Louie, but there was also an admiration for the way he kept expanding his talent. On the technical side, Louie developed the technique of using two bass drums, which were a tremendous asset in driving big bands, but he also knew when not to use them when he played with smaller groups. He also developed the chromatic tympani, by which a drummer can contribute to the chord structures and melodies of arrangements.

Louie's talent went far beyond drumming. He was also a composer and arranger whose interests ventured from the jazz idiom into more symphonic and classic-like compositions.

Louie often came back to the Quad-Cities to visit family and friends. To do this, he sometimes booked sessions at local clubs. At the time he had developed a close friendship with trumpet player Charlie Shavers, with whom Louie organized a band and with whom he traveled on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours that sponsored jam sessions throughout America. I was not old enough to frequent some of the clubs he appeared in locally, but some allowed youngsters in where food was served. I remember him appearing at the Rendezvous in Moline, especially the Belgium Village on the Moline-Rock Island border, and the Flamingo in Silvis, Ill. Louie liked to have local musicians sit in with his groups and join in the musical comraderie. I can't say I ever played in such a session, but I listened often enough to understand an essential trait possessed by Louie that created great jazz.

With many musicians, their egos exceed their talent. Louie was not that way. As many people who worked with him have stated, he was a genuinely nice person. This was reflected in his music. As an aspiring trumpet player, I could see why other musicians wanted to play with Louie, to have him working behind you. You knew that with Louie in your band, you would play well. While he was virtuoso performer, he supported other players by responding to their lead, always playing superbly to create the circumstances in which others could play their best. And he was genuinely elated and appreciative of other people's playing. Rather than outshine others, he strove to make everybody shine. It was this quality as much as his virtuosity that contributed to the outstanding music from the bands he played with.

Among the best jazz musicians, there is a feeling that they will always play their best and complement your performances so that you will play your best. They feed off of each other and inspire each other at the same time. Louie Bellson was a master at creating this kind of musical rapport.

In his later years, Louie became much involved with carrying forward this message through his activities in music education as well as production.

The last time he returned to the Quad-Cities to bring and encourage music was last October. I had heard he was making an appearance, and I had hoped to make a quick trip to see him. The events of an election campaign, however, precluded that.

Louie will come back to Moline one last time. He will be buried there.

Just as memorial services held over Bix Beiderbecke's grave in Davenport eventually became the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, I hope that such an event can evolve from Louie's resting place. His is a legacy that cannot die.

Upper left: Louie Bellson appears in Davenport last October.

Upper right: Louie in full swinging mode at a session showing his double bass setup.

Right: Louie took dellight in playing. The Remo brand is prominently featured in this shot. Louie was a vice president of the company,


Douglas said...

Was Bellson on the Johnie Carson show with the band?

I seem to remember some Carson jokes or quips about Bellson in the band...or not?

David Newquist said...

Yes, he played often with The Tonight Show band when the regular drummer was off.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States