Friday, October 31, 2014

Louie Bellson: Blazing, Bombastic and Beautiful

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Although his illustrious career is detailed in any number of places including his own website, Louie Bellson’s name is not the subject of a dedicated chapter in any of the major anthologies on Jazz drumming.

Come to think of it, for that matter, neither is Joe Morello, although Joe does get his own chapter in Georges Paczynski’s Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz, Tome 2, while Louie has to share one with another former Ellington drummer, Sam Woodyard, in which the focus is on Skin Deep [which Louie composed.] Duke used it as a wowie, zowie drum solo intended as crowd pleaser.

Along with Gene Krupa and Buddy, Louie is often mentioned as part of what Duke referred to as “The Big Three,” but I suspect that this is more to do with Ellington’s habit of hyping things up than with any real recognition of Louie’s skills as a drummer.

Over the years, I got to know Louie a bit and I’ve never been around anyone who visibly enjoyed playing drums more than Louie Bellson.

When he sat down behind the monster, double bass drum kit that he preferred, he just exuded energy and enthusiasm.

Louie was a well-schooled drummer with lots of technical skills and an uncanny knack of seeming to ride over a set of drums, almost as though he was barely touching them. He speed was blazingly fast, but unlike Buddy Rich, he rarely generated any power to go along with his lighting-fast stick control. He touched the drums instead of striking them.

When he did produce the sound of power in his solos, it generally came from coordinating the double bass drums with single stroke rolls on the snare drum and tom toms. Once he got those big bass drums going [he used two, 30” diameter bass drums], it sounded like artillery rounds were being fired off as a commemorative salute.

Louie generated his speed from the finger control method of playing drums in which the rebound from the stick is employed along with very relaxed wrists to perpetuate movement on and around the drum heads. The stick is tapped back down instead of being banged or slapped into the drum.

Louie was not a big guy; if anything he was slight and a bit demure, but boy, get him behind a set of drums and he “lit up like a Christmas tree.”

“Who cares about winning polls. I’ve got my own big band and we’re having fun.”

“Who do I like in today’s Jazz drummers? I like ‘em all. I always learn something from every drummer.”

“What type of stick do I use? I use a variety of ‘em: different lengths; different beads; different weights. Keeps your hands more sensitive and responsive.”

All these responses and many more like them came from Louie’s answers to questions at drum clinics. He was usually mobbed afterwards with everyone coming up to give him a hug and to thank him.

“Sure, sure,” he would say: “Hey, does anyone want to try the double bass drums? Don’t be afraid [everyone was because hardly anyone had that kind of coordination]. It’s easy. Just sit down and just do it.”

When one of us would try playing the two bass drum kit, he’d always say - “Beautiful, beautiful” - no matter how badly we messed them up.

Louie Bellson had blazingly fast hands, used his feet to “detonate” bass drums bombs” while all the while wearing a beautiful smile on his face.

He was revered by drummers and just about every musician he ever worked with because he was an excellent drummer but never lorded his talents and abilities over anyone. Jazz cats come in all “shapes and size.” Some have incredible technical skills while others just get by on their instruments with a strong will and deep feelings. Louie didn’t care as long as you loved the music and were honestly yourself while trying to play it.

In all the years I’ve been around Jazz musicians, I have never met a kinder more nobler soul that Louie Bellson.

Len Lyons and Don Perlo put together this brief synopsis about Louie and his career in their Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters:

Louis Bellson - also “Louie” - Louis Paul Balassoni [1924 - 2009]

[Ed. note. - Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni]

‘Bellson, an excellent technician and all-around musician, can power a big band with his driving beat, or tastefully accompany small combos and vocalists. He pioneered the use of twin bass drums during the mid-1940s, sparked the languishing Ellington Orchestra from 1951 to 1953, and during the 1970s led his own big band, for which he composed and arranged. Modest and gregarious, Bellson solos little for a drummer of his virtuosity and easily slips in and out of diverse environments: jazz clubs, TV, educational clinics, and orchestras.

The son of a music-store proprietor, Bellson learned to tap-dance as a boy, which he credits with developing his sense of time and rhythm. He was soon proficient on drums and won several competitions, including one sponsored by an early idol, Gene Krupa. Bellson worked for Benny Goodman in 1943 and again in 1945-46. In 1946, with Ted Fio Rito's commercial band, he inaugurated the use of two bass drums, which increases the drummer's ability to propel a large group. Bellson then replaced Buddy Rich, with whom he is often compared, in the Tommy Dorsey band (1947-49).

The subsequent period with Ellington, however, established him as a major talent. Bellson was a precise yet fiery drummer and a capable composer, adding to the band's book "Hawk Talks," "Ting-a-ling," and "Skin Deep," which showcased an extended drum solo.... In 1953 Bellson left the Ellington band to further the career of his new wife, Pearl Bailey.

Bellson accompanied Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum and various small combos. He rejoined Ellington (1965—66), served as Bailey's music director, and composed for various bands. During the mid-1970s, Bellson organized a Los Angeles—based group for which he wrote many brassy, extroverted pieces - The Louie Bellson Explosion.  In addition to performing, Bellson has been a popular visiting instructor at college percussion seminars and clinics.”

The distinguished Jazz author, critic and historian Leonard Feather offers a slightly different recap of Louie’s career, as well as, an elaboration of Louie’s Big Band Explosion in these introductory paragraphs that are excerpted from his insert notes to The Louis Bellson Explosion [Pablo/Original Jazz Classics - OJCCD-728-2]:

“Louis Bellson lives in two worlds, enjoying the best of both. By this I do not refer to his dual life as a drummer and composer, or composer and bandleader, but rather to his simultaneous occupancy of past and present. There is no better evidence than this new album of his ability to draw on early experiences while infusing his orchestra with a spirit that is contemporary in the best sense of the word.

Louis, of course, paid lengthy dues as a sideman, with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Count Basie, and most notably Duke Ellington. But because of his qualifications as an all-around musician, he probably was destined from the start to be a leader.
Historically, it is interesting to note that he undertook this role on records for the first time with a Los Angeles session for Norman Granz's Clef label in 1953.

Throughout the 1950s he continued to record for Granz, in addition to touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic. With his appearance in combos on several recent Pablo albums, and particularly with the return to records of his own orchestra via this flourishing new company, the wheel has come full circle.

Writing some years ago about Louis's juggling of multiple careers, I noted that he had found a successful solution to the problems posed by any attempt in the post-swing era to organize a big band. Instead of keeping an ensemble together on a year-round basis, he draws on a pool of important Los Angeles-based musicians who can be counted on to constitute a firm foundation. A key figure has always been trombonist Nick Di Maio, who has doubled as manager for the bands since the 1950s. Di Maio is one of a half dozen members of the present unit who play regularly in Doc Severinsen's band on the Tonight show, as does Louis himself whenever he has a little spare time in town.

Several of the sidemen have credentials that include long associations with Bellson. Cat Anderson was a colleague back in the Ellington days. Pete Christlieb, the powerhouse tenor player, now 30, was 22 when he began working with Louis. His section-mate, composer Don Menza, moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and started gigging with the band almost immediately. A more recent addition is Richard "Blue" Mitchell, the poised and expressive trumpeter who had put in long stints with Horace Silver, Ray Charles, and John Mayall before undertaking a cross-Canada tour with Louis in 1974. The two keyboard occupants who share duties here, Nat Pierce and Ross Tompkins, have worked separately with Louis for several years off and on.

To fortify the rhythm section, it was decided to enlist the services of Dave Levine and Paulo Magalhaes, whose additional percussion work was scattered through the two sessions.

All these elements, along with the band's characteristic esprit de corps in the brass and reed sections, come into focus from the opening track.”

For the following video montage, I have selected the closing track from The Louis Bellson Explosion [Pablo/Original Jazz Classics - OJCCD-728-2], about which, Leonard provides these insights:

La Banda Grande, by Jack Hayes [a long-established orchestrator, conductor and composer for films who has been collaborating with Bellson since they met at an Academy Awards broadcast in the 1960s when both were working for Henry Mancini] and Bellson, is characterized by Louis as "a Chick Corea type Latin thing." Along with contributions by [Blue] Mitchell and [Pete] Christlieb, and a brief spot for [guitarist] Mitch Holder, there is a joyous samba groove that brings out the value of that extra percussion as Louis plays off against Dave Levine and Paulo Magalhaes.

"We really got a good feeling in the studio," says Bellson, "with the help of a natural set-up. The band was arranged just the way we would be in a nightclub, which enabled us to relax; and the engineer got a great sound. John Williams was fantastic both on acoustic and on electric bass. In fact, I'm very happy about the way the whole album turned out."

What Bellson could not add, because bombast is not his style, is that no band of first-class musicians, directed by an instrumentalist so gifted and so unanimously respected, is likely to go very far wrong. "Working for Louis was a ball," somebody remarked to me after a recent gig with the band. I can't remember which sideman said it, because over the years some similar phrase has been echoed by just about everyone who has worked for him. If you don't care to take my word for it, the performance itself offers eloquent proof.”

—Leonard Feather

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