Louie Bellson (1924–2009)
Luigi Balassoni went by the stage name of Louie Bellson and was an American jazz drummer, composer, arranger, bandleader and jazz educator. He was the featured drummer in all the major big bands of the 1940s including the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He is credited with pioneering the use of two bass drums.
Bellson was the son of a music store owner and began his drumming career at just three years of age. His father allowed him to continue providing he studied and gained a complete musical education. He agreed and the importance of learning music along with drumming was important in his career.
Aged just 15, he started using two bass drums at the same time. At 17, he triumphed over 40,000 drummers to win drum manufacturers Slingerlands ‘National Gene Krupa’ contest.
Bellson cited his influences as fellow drummers Jo Jones, Sid Catlett and Chick Webb. He credited Gene Krupa with bringing drums to the foreground as a solo instrument. His own composition “Skin Deep” became a feature for drummers for many years.
A keen educator, throughout his career he conducted drum and band clinics at schools, colleges and music stores in the US and UK. While in London, he recorded with many top UK jazz musicians and conducted drum clinics.
In the 1970s, Buddy Rich paid Bellson the compliment of asking him to lead his band on tour while he was temporarily disabled by a back injury. Bellson accepted.
Biography by Mike Rose
The Les Tomkins interview
Bellson enjoyed a long and successful career, appearing with his own band and with many of the most popular big bandleaders. His father’s insistence on him gaining a musical education not only contributed to his own success but also to all the young drummers who benefited from his work as an educator. In this 1967 interview, Bellson talks to Les Tomkins about how he became a drummer and composing with Jack Hayes.
You can also read the original article in Crescendo, January 1967, pp5–6.
|1st January 1967
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This was my first playing visit here and it's really a pleasure. Of course I was married to Pearl Bailey here in 1952.
This tour is a very unusual one, in that we have all these stars on one show. But the beautiful part of this is that we all get along. There are no little outside frustrations with one another, which sometimes happens on these tours. Everybody is like one happy family, and we're really enjoying every minute of it, offstage as much as on. And the audiences, especially, here have been just tremendous-very receptive.
I've worked before with everyone. Except T-Bone Walker, although I'm familiar with his work. But he's on as an extra added attraction, actually.
Yes, I like this kind of set-up. I'm one of those musicians who likes to get into a variety of things. I like the big band, then I like to play with a small band that has special arrangements.
Then this-strictly impromptu jazz, which is what Norman Granz really strives for on his concerts. With that kind of personnel it always comes off, because they're such great musicians.
Drumming has always been a natural thing to me, my father being a musician who played every instrument and had a music store Even when I was two years old, I had a certain amount of rhythm. My mother told me that I was always tapping on something. By the time I was three and a half I was really able to communicate with my father as to what kind of instrument I wanted. He wanted me to play a percussive instrument, but one with a melodic voice in it, so he thought maybe the xylophone would be good for me. I had the xylophone for six months, but I was very unhappy with it.
When my father gave me the drum, we made a pact between us that I would not only study drums, but I would learn composition theory, harmony and so forth. Even at that age, I sort of rebelled against it-but it didn't take me long after that to realise the importance of learning music along with the drumming. It's helped considerably.
I know of a lot of great drummers today who don't have that, and they're no less great. But I don't like to stop at that. If I have my own band, I've always wanted to rehearse it myself. To be able to read a score and say: "Third trombone-you're wrong on the second bar after letter B." I feel that, when you become a leader, you must have all this in order to gain the respect of your men. To me, Duke Ellington represents a great leader, because he not only knows how to handle men, but he knows who's playing the bad notes when he rehearses an arrangement.
Those two years with the Ellington band were actually the highlight of my career, I think. Not only was it one of the greatest bands he has ever had-and he admitted to this-plus all the other musicians in that particular band, but the music that we played, the travelling we did, was all very memorable. Just being with the Duke alone was an experience-talking to him on and off the bandstand, watching the way he worked.
Did I change my playing for the band? Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't have to do anything but just sit down and play.
It was just a question of adding my sound to the band-swinging you know. And then I heard a lot of people say afterwards: "Well you changed the entire tonality of the band." I think this is very true-a drummer can make the band sound a certain way. But with the Ellington band, it was so easy to play, because every person in it plays great and in tempo. They don't even need a rhythm section-it's just added for a different colour.
One thing I will say, though-I did bear down a little more than with any other band. Because you have to really get into it with that band. There were spots where you had to be ferocious to get that effect. This I enjoyed very much, because I think it's important for a drummer to be able to reach those spots where you really get dynamic, then come right down and play something very delicate. This is the great thing about that band-we were able to do all these things. So much music.
It was the need for more variety in sound that brought about my using the two bass drums. I used to have the conventional set-up, and do a lot of varied rhythms between the right foot on the bass drum and the left foot on the hi-hat. And I used to wonder, even when I was a youngster, how it would be to have another big sound with that left foot pedal But I didn't want to lose sight of the hi-hat completely, because this is a very essential part of the drum set. So then I thought of the idea of having the other bass drum, and just having the hi-hat pedal next to it.
And, of course, I went through all kinds of phases of different set-ups, and now, after years of experience, I have the most compact set-up. It's proven itself very good. Duke especially liked the two bass drums. In fact, I think he's made it a requisite that every drummer that comes into his band has to play them!-My basic idea did work-to develop something rhythmically with the band. Also, when you play solos, you're less limited, because you have a lot more sound. Quite a few drummers, here and in the States, have adopted it.
No, I didn't have to work on the technique that much. I'd always wanted to do it, and I'm very ambidextrous-I can use the left foot equally as well as the right. And the same way with my hands. So it just meant getting the set made, because I al ready knew in my mind the way I would play it. In using it with bands, I've cut out certain little things to-make it more play able.
I do believe that everything in drumming stems from the snare. Buddy Rich and I have the reputation of being the two drummers with the technique, as far as solo work is concerned.
We're noted primarily as band drummers-which is great I like to think-and I'm sure Buddy feels the same way-of a lot of musicians saying: "I enjoy working with Lou or Buddy, because they propel a lot of drive." I would like to have this comment first, then the solo comment next, and Buddy agrees. Although we're both technicians to a certain degree. We both play quite a bit of our work on the snare drums. I have various arrangements in my big band at home where I feature only the tom-toms. But, basically, most of the time we use the snare drum as the focal point of the drum solo-that's very true.
As I mentioned in the clinic that I did here I had a snare drum for seven years before I even had a chance to look at a bass drum. So I had to learn quite a bit on that snare drum-not only the 26 rudiments, but steps beyond that. Fine technical things. This pays off, too. Most of the drummers today are inclined to start playing, and after two days they get an entire set. Then they want to get at everything too fast, instead of learning one instrument at a time. Because each part of the set is an individual instrument.
Dizzy Gillespie was telling me the other day that he heard one of the greatest bass drummers in his life. He was talking about a guy who is an artist, just using a mallet against the bass drum.
He had any kind of sound that you wanted out of that bass drum-just his particular blend with the concert hand was fabulous He'd perfected that. When people like Duke, Dizzy and Teddy Wilson compliment me by saying that my drumming approach is one of the most musical, I feel like all the work that I've done so far hasn't been wasted. Primarily, I feel that, if I can play in back of artists of the calibre of the ones on this JATP tour, and make them sound good-then; even if I close the show with the most exciting drum solo, I would have to say that my sheer delight was to be able to play for all these great performers and to be able to supply them with the proper backing Normally, I don't use one of those big Chinese crash cymbals-but Dizzy likes this. And I have one, so I put it on the set because I know he wants that kind of sound in back of ac centuate in and out of the beat with the left hand.
This is very important. Knowing all these little things, I adapt my playing for each individual artist-instead of me just sitting back there and playing for myself. Which I would do on a solo-that's the time for me to express my own ideas and convey my ù message to the audience.
It's funny, because I was talking to Eric Delaney and Kenny Clare about this the other day, and they agreed Kenny said: "That's great-to have enough facility to be able to do that, and yet turn around and play an inspired solo". And that is the way it should be. It's the same as a pitcher in baseball. He has to know certain pitches to give each ball player.
On the question of tuning-with drums, we all know that we can't get a definite tonality. Of the membrane group in the percussion field, the timpani is really the only instrument where you can get an exact note. If you want a low E natural or a low F or a G, then you can get this on the timpani. We can only as sume relative pitch with a set of drums. So I like to tune the set like a choir. I refer to the snare drum as the soprano, the small tom-tom as the alto, the large tom-tom as the tenor and, of course, the bass drum (or drums) as our bass. This way you have a complete choir-like sound within the drum set, if they're tuned properly.
Regarding the dual-purpose bass drum beater which I mentioned at the clinic: before we invented it, we had either a hard felt, a lambs-wool, or a wooden beater. The wooden beater is very popular today; because it seems to get the staccato sound that most drummers use. I think Joe Morello uses one. So do I; also Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa; maybe eighty per cent now are using it. This, new one we have is half wood and half felt, and it doesn't require taking the entire beater out of the initial pedal case.
All you have to do-there's a little spring effect below the beater, and you just press down on the beater itself and dial what you want wood or hard felt. Then, when you push this back up, it stays in place. So it's a very nifty little idea. It's great for studio drummers, because often an arranger won't want that staccato, wood sound-he'll want more of a muffled, felt sound. This way you have both sounds to call upon.
Among the recent albums I've made, one that I particuarly enjoyed was a Lalo Schifrin session for Roulette, called "Explorations". Lalo is just a tremendous writer. This was a very avant garde type of album-done with all strings, and me as the initial percussionist. I had to play a varied amount of things, like timpani, boo-bams, bass marimba. Actually, we went through most of the percussion instruments. It was an al bum that showed off talent, not as an extended drum soloist, which I've done before but another side of my ability. That is, to be able to read and play these other effects, along with the violins, 'cellos, violas and so forth.
One of the rhythms I played on there was 15/ 8. Which brings up an amusing story. Now, Dizzy Gillespie is really a frustrated drummer. And, I may add, a very good one He plays the tambourine very well and he gets a very rhythmical sound out of the drums. He learned this rhythm from Lalo, you see.
Then he decided to play tricks on all the famous drummers, like Max Roach and Art Blakey. In fact, he tried those two first-and they couldn't play it. Because when you see this at first, it takes a little while to analyse, study the sticking, and hear the rhythm before you can do it.
So, when I saw Lalo, prior to seeing Dizzy, he tipped me off and said: "Why don't you let me teach you this rhythm now? You have to learn it, anyway, for the album. And it'll be nice to turn the tables on Dizzy. Because, if you run into him, he's go ing to try to do this same trick on you". So he showed me the rhythm. And it happened in Chicago, when I was there with the Ellington band After the concert, Dizzy decided that we would retreat back to my drum set, because he wanted to hear me play something. But, of course, what he really wanted was to execute this rhythm for me, and then try to spring it on me and stop me.
When I sat down and played it perfectly right after him, he just completely fell out! Before concluding, I must speak of the recordings I made here with Eric Delaney, which worked out very good. One of them is going to be a little bit of a commercial album, in a way but it's been done very musically. It's based on themes like "St.
Louis Blues March". They've also included "Skin Deep", which I did with the Ellington band. We've been able to play little touches of authentic marches, then going into swing. It features a lot of interplay between Eric Delaney mostly on timpani, and myself on drums. And we've managed to get some pretty good sounds on record over at EMI-it's a very nice studio there. It's been kinda rough fitting it in with my schedule, but the collaboration has been very enjoyable.
I've really been enjoying making an album here. London is one of my favourite places-I was married here, of course, ,in 1952. The people here are marvellous; I just have such a great time when I come over.
It was very exciting, using all British musicians. I was so pleased with the performance of these wonderful players; I think we're going to have a great album, We had ace players-such as Stan Roderick; Greg Bowen, Don Lusher-in every department. They were just magnificent, and I feel very honoured to have been able to work with them.
We used five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, four rhythm, plus extra percussion. And the interesting thing about this date: on two of the tracks we added a full choir of twelve voices. We laid down the instrumental part; then the voices came in, and dubbed over that. So it should be good to have the voices along with the band.
I had a hand in most of the writing. Recently I struck up a very good friendship with Jack Hayes, who is one of the great writers in the Hollywood area; he does a lot of composition and arranging for Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein; Henry Mancini.
We write compositions and arrange together. We've done the entire showcase for this album, save for a nine minute score: on "Limehouse Blues", which was written by Derek Cox. And another very good British arranger, Jack Seymour, made arrange ments of two of my themes. He arranged one of the vocal arts with the band part, and also a swing piece that we call "Big Ben Really Has Swinging Time". I felt that I wanted to represent the writing of one or two of the London musicians as well.
Certainly it's an album that I can look upon as a contribution that has musical merit; I would say it's every bit as good s anything I've done in the States. The studio and the engineer we had were fantastic also.
All the music was specially composed around the idea of "Louie In London". So we took "Carnaby Street" for one; that is sort of a drum solo vehicle for me, but there's a lot of band in it, too. It starts out in a slow four, doubles up the time, and then we go into 3/ 4; then a mixture of other time signatures. The "Lon don Suite" itself is in; three movements. That starts out in 7/ 4, the middle part is with brass choir and voices, and the third section is in a Rock vein. Other titles are "The Proud Thames", "Sketches From The National Art Gallery." It's everything pertaining to London; so there's really a significance for doing the album. I feel very happy about it, because everything was done and performed honestly-I like to do things that way.
In the States I'm a part-time studio musician, I have my own big band going, and I do a lot of recitals and what you call demonstrations. You know, they get all the drummers and other musicians together and we give lectures on music and percussion. So it keeps me pretty busy, doing all these things. I'm based in Hollywood, but I also do a lot of travelling around.
I have nineteen men in the band. We work quite often; we play in a little place called Donte's in North Hollywood at least once a week. Then we have various other jobs during the week.
Which means the big band plays two or three times a week, and as a result it sounds very good.
As a matter of fact, I think we're going to have the good fortune to come over here next year with Tony Bennett: This will give us the opportunity of playing one or two nights at Ronnie Scott's, and maybe we'll do an album here. It should be very interesting.
Among the key men in the band are Don Menza and an other tenorman, Peter Christlieb, who is phenomenal-he's only 24 years old, but he's already a giant. In the trombones are Jimmy Cleveland and Frank Rosolino. Harry "Sweets" Edison's been working with us on trumpet; Al Aarons, who just left the Basie band-he's on trumpet; also Chuck Findley, who was with Buddy Rich's band-22 years old, and plays great. Ray Brown works with us quite a lot in California; whether we can get him to leave the country or not, I don't know, as he's very busy but maybe he will. Then we have an excellent guitarist by the name of Joe Pass. Our lead alto is Joe Romano. In every department we have really fine musicians. And the band as an ensemble-is just beautiful.
I do some of the writing, but I really don't have enough time to do too much. We have three or four arrangers within the band, who write very well. Then I have some great people like Bill Holman, Marty Paich, Oliver Nelson, contributing scores for us. We're continually adding new material, thinking up new ideas and so forth.
The objective we have is to play not only Swing music, but to get into the contemporary thing, too, because we feel it's an important area there. We have one or two arrangers who rite the contemporary pieces excellently-hard rock or easy rock, you know. We're also still playing some very delicate ballad-type things. Then we go on to the hard swinging sounds.
Actually, we've tried to develop a good-sounding band that will be suitable for any kind of audience. And we've found that our audience ranges from tiny tots clear up to the old people-with all of them enjoying everything we play.
Having a lot of young musicians, we can keep in touch with everything that's happening on today's music scene. So naturally we're into a lot of the very modern styles in jazz. We like to stay abreast of the times, figure out the good things, and add those to our repertoire.
Using rock rhythms with jazz is entirely valid. The last two years, especially, have seen a lot of the rock drummers playing much better. They're not resorting to the basic things they were doing before. They're more sound-conscious, more equipment-conscious. Recording techniques are getting better and thus more critical; the competition is greater. With the re sult that the drummers are learning their craft on the instrument a little more, and getting into some wonderfully complex rhythm patterns. I think the intensity we're hearing from these young people is tremendous.
You can't help but have it infiltrate; it's already in a lot of bands right now. You can still keep the swing going, but you can integrate this other sound in with it. As we're now doing on some pieces. To refer back to the "London Suite": after the delicate middle part, the last part can be termed a continuance-showing the way it is. Which is a combination of semi-Latin rock and Swing-and it comes off great.
As for working with Basie and, of course, the great Tony Bennett-that's been very enjoyable, too. Tony wanted me to come over; I had to get out of a few engagements to make the trip, but I was happy that I was able to do so.
That Basie band is an institution; it's like Ellington's band. There's a certain feel with a personnel that's been together for years, that you don't get with any other band. The solidity is there, the feeling, and it's marvellous to play with bands like that. We used to call 'em the road bands. Well, they still are, of course.
And Tony-I'd put him in a class with Sinatra-who, as we all know, is such a marvellous entertainer and such a marvellous man. There are really no adjectives left to improve on what has already been said about him. And the same goes for Tony Bennett-he has that great magnetism; when he hits the stage, you know that there's a performer. The way he sings his ballads and his swing numbers-it's just class personified.
Besides being such a great singer, Tony is a really beautiful person, and he's much-loved by musicians: It's been a real treat working with him. My band has the opportunity of doing three or four important jobs a year with him, and we look forward to it. He loves the big band sound, and it's great for us-as it is for Basie, Ellington, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, whose bands he also works with a lot. It helps to keep us all going.
Anyway, for various reasons, this has turned out to be just about my most memorable playing visit so far. All the concerts went well and the press was very kind to us, the clinic I did for the IDA came off great, and then the record sessions were so wonderful.
I also had a chance to listen. to some other musicians. In particular, Roy Budd-who is a very talented young pianist. I got to know him quite well. In fact, we played together a couple of times. I'd like to hear some of the things he's writing; he's doing a picture now, I understand, for the first time.
Another pleasure was spending a day with Kenny Clare, who is a very close friend. He's one of your greatest drummers-certainly a giant. I went to a session he was doing, and also watched him work with Tony on the BBC show-the one that the Queen attended. He played just great, Then Kenny was up in the control booth on one of the evenings we were recording, and I got a little nervous watching him up there. I kept saying "How is it, Kenny?" and he kept giving me the okay sign.
Without a doubt, there are new ideas coming into drumming that we must accept, because they've been proven to be valid. A lot of our younger people now are realising that we can change certain things-or add on to what we already have.
What I think is so great about our youth today is that they want to have love and peace. Once you have that; everything else falls in line; then with music as well, what more can you have? It's marvellous to see them having that much care for one another-really more today than we had years ago-and it's something that the whole world will have to develop.
It's like a band-all of us must have a love affair, so to speak. Because we're all playing together; that intensity must go out from the bandstand to the audience. My wife, Pearl Bailey, used to say a wonderful thing at the end of her show: "I've been playing a game of tennis with you. Not the physical kind-that's a little too hard for me. But I bounce my ball of love out to you and you bounce it back." It's a game with no winner; you both win. It's just that once you get that tremendous applause, it means that you've scored your point in this game of love: That's very important.
So, as I say, music can be so beautiful. I work on movie soundtracks, TV jingles, and all that; it's very valuable to have my own band also. Like Buddy - he worked with the Harry James band for a long time. I was doing the same thing; I worked with Basie, Duke and other bands. When you get your own band, after so many years, you can manoeuvre it just any way you want.
Talking of Harry James: if somebody asks him: "Do you think tat big bands are coming back?", he always says: "We never left". But there is a lot of intensity that way now. It started when Blood, Sweat And Tears made a breakthrough, adding more instruments; they got away from just the plain guitars and drums sound. Now a lot of the rock groups are adding more brass and woodwinds, getting into better tunes, becoming more musical. The groups are bigger-which is a good indication.
Everything travels in cycles, you know, and that's the way music is. We're getting into a new cycle for big sounds now.
Copyright © 1967 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.