Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Part 3- Louie Bellson [1924-2009] - The Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program NEA Jazz Master Interviews

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Brown: We’re on tape 3. 

Bellson: So there were a lot of tense moments, but there were also, down South, a lot of wonderful people. In Mississippi, they had Duke and Strayhorn and I and a couple of others come to their house and stay there. They fed us. There were a lot of good people down there. They weren’t all crackers. I wanted to mention that, because it was nice to know that somebody’s thinking in the right direction. 

Brown: So you’re saying some white families invited you in, or black families invited you in? 

Bellson: Yeah, white families, too. 

Brown: So they were accepting of the fact that you were an integrated group. 

Bellson: Yeah. 

Brown:  Let’s talk about what that was like. You mentioned earlier in this interview about how Benny Goodman was a pioneer, but you yourself were a trailblazer in many ways, and you endured a lot of, shall we say, kinds of experiences that weren’t really the norm at that time. Separate but equal was the law of the land, and segregation was strictly enforced. But you seem to feel comfortable crossing color lines. So maybe talk about, what was it about your upbringing or your experiences that allowed you to have such a progressive view and such a humanitarian heart. 

Bellson: The upbringing had a lot to do with it. I was exposed to music. Like Duke used to say, “There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.” I was exposed to good music. That’s what I thought of. The color line didn’t come into second thought. Even when I hired my own band, I didn’t hire anybody because of their color. I hired them for their musicianship and their artistry. When you think in those terms, you’re thinking of people. There’s a lot I can tell you about with Pearl coming up, too – that same idea. With Duke and all these other bands that I worked with, I felt comfortable working with the bands. Duke, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman – the only band I never really worked with is Jimmie Lunceford’s. Cab [Calloway]’s band – I sat in with Cab’s band, with Cozy [Cole]. Cozy was like a brother to me. Having that kind of exposure – the Good Lord gives you a chance to live among your peers and know that you’re there because of music, for everybody to enjoy. Let the bad things – if they’re going to happen, let them happen, but know in your heart that shouldn’t have happened. It’s hard to express this sometimes in words, but you just said that Duke’s band was like a family. That was like my family here, my sisters and four boys. Duke’s band was just – that’s why they felt so good coming to my house, because we were all family. You can’t beat that family. That’s love, and love rules the world. 

When I first met Pearl – can I go into that? 

Brown: Sure. 

Bellson: I met – the Tizol family’s involved there too, because the room I occupied when I was with Juan Tizol – Harry James years – that’s the same room that Pearl occupied when she came to town. So that’s all I heard was Pearl Bailey, Pearl Bailey. You’ve got to meet Pearl Bailey. The chance came. I joined Duke’s band. We were playing at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. Pearl came in to play Cavacas Grill. Do you know about that? 

Brown: No. 

Bellson: That was a jazz club, Cavacas Grill. So Juan Tizol says, “We’re going to go watch Pearl, and you’re going to meet Pearl.” “Okay.” I met her that afternoon. She came backstage at the theater and said, “You coming tonight to watch?” I said, “Yep.” So I came into the theater. I was very impressed with her, very much, not only as a talent, but as a person. She was a giver, and you felt easy with her. Came the second night. Brought the flowers. Came the third night. Brought the flowers. Fourth night. Brought the flowers, and I walked her home. Before I said goodbye to her, I said, “I have something very important I want to tell you.” She said, “The answer is yes.” And we got married in four days. Isn’t that something? We ran into some problems. Married to her for 39 years. I remember one time we were playing in Chicago – playing the Regal Theater and the Howard Theater – the Regal Theater in Chicago – but before I met Pearl, she was telling me about, in Chicago she was at this Chinese restaurant. She went over with her hairdresser. She sat there talking for a long time, and then she said, “Don’t tell me the Chinese are going to shower down on me.” She said, “We waited there too long. Nobody was coming to our table.” So she finally caught the eye of the manager. She said, “Come here.” The manager came over and said, “Yes. What can I do for you?” She said, “Look. I came over here to pick cotton and you came over here to” – what was it now? – “you came over here to do laundry and I came over here to pick cotton. So give me your damn menu now, will you?” He brought the menu over. That’s some choice words, right? But overall we had a nice association. Pearl was an extraordinary person, in that everybody loved her. I don’t care who it was. If they see her on television, they felt like holding hands with her to say, we love you. So a lot of those things passed by us because of her. They didn’t think about her being black. They just thought of a person that we love, and let me touch you. I love the way you sing. I love the way you dance. The other things, we better let them go by. 

Brown: You had children, you and Pearl?

Bellson: We found out that she couldn’t have children, so we adopted two kids: Dee Dee, when she was four months old, and Tony, who just passed away a couple of months ago. My son. 51 years old. He got real sick. Dee Dee – that’s [a picture of] Dee Dee up in the corner there – she’s about 42 now. A good singer. She’s like her mother. Then after being married to Pearl for 39 years [Pearl died in 1990], I met another gem. I thought after Pearl I was going to not get married again. Just play my drums, write music, tour, write, compose, keep on doing it, until I went on a Duke Ellington cruise, which this young lady [Francine] was on that same cruise. When I saw her with a mini-skirt on – I told her later on – I said, “You need a lot of loving, and I’m just the guy that can give it to you.” 

Brown: Spoken like a true drummer.

Bellson: She a smart lady. You had a chance to meet her already. She’s a graduate of Harvard, MIT, and Earlham – three universities. She quit all those things just to come with me and sell CDs. Isn’t that something? That way we kept together, because she knew that I had a career, and she was willing to back me up. That’s Francine. For me to have two marriages like that – that’s a blessing. I look up every day and say, “Thank you Lord.” I’ve had a good time. 

Brown: Still having a good time. 

Bellson: I’m still having a good time. Yeah. That’s right. 

Brown: Let’s take a break. [recording interrupted. It resumes in mid-sentence] 

Brown: I’d like to return again to talking about your experience with Duke Ellington. You mentioned earlier that you were Billy Strayhorn’s roommate. I’m just wondering if you had some experiences to share there? You can tell us what it was like being close to Billy Strayhorn. You mentioned he’s a genius. Of course we all know that. 

Bellson: After that two weeks with Billy Strayhorn, I roomed with Duke. Billy Strayhorn went back home to do some composing or writing. He just came out with the band periodically. But I lasted one week with Duke, because he stays up all night writing music. In the morning when I got up at 9 o’clock, boom, boom, boom, [there’s a] knock on the door – no, 4 o’clock in the morning – [a] knock on the door. “Flowers for Mr. Ellington.” Duke’s busy writing, so I had to answer the doorbell. Flowers, telegram for Mr., flowers, telegram – all night long. I had to answer the door, and I wasn’t getting any sleep. So I finally told Duke – I said, “Duke, if you want a good, strong drummer, I’ve got to get out of here and get some sleep.” He laughed. That was another experience. 

Brown: Who else did you have for roommates during that two-year stint with Duke? Did you have any other roommates? 

Bellson: After that, I roomed with Tizol a couple of times, and Paul Gonsalves. No, pretty much alone then. 

Brown: I’m surprised the Duke even had a roommate. 

Bellson: Yeah, right. He laughed when I said, “If you want a good, strong drummer, you better let me get out of here right now.” 

Brown: Any other recollections about your experience with Ellington? Any other recordings or any other tours of note? 

Bellson: Recordings were always – they were very superstitious. Did you know that? Duke and Strayhorn were very superstitious. You never whistle in the dressing room. Never whistle. The color yellow is out. Blue is in. Blue is the color. Don’t ever buy him shoes, because that means he’s stepping out of your life. Willie Smith was the champion with being superstitious. He had so many, I can’t even think of all of them. One in particular was, he had a big coin. It looked like a silver dollar. That had to be put on the bureau. It had to be concise, right on the middle of the bureau, and measured on top, before he went to sleep. Then when he opened his alto [saxophone] case to take out his horn, he’d open up the case, look at his horn, and go “boom bam bam bam chim chim bang bang bang,” and close it. He’d wait a minute. Then he’d open it up again, look at his horn, “ram boom zing zam zing zing zam rrr rrr rrr rrr bang,” and close it. He did that about ten times. Then finally, he’d open it up, “R-boong.” He’d grab his horn. 

Brown: Every time? 

Bellson: Every time. 

Brown: Did you ever ask him what was going on? 

Bellson: He’d just say, “Ahhhh. That’s a secret.” Whatever he said, all I could tell was ram-boo-ings, ram-boo-ings, ram-boo-ings. I don’t know who ram-boo-ings was, but he had to be pretty heavy. But Duke was – never wore a shirt that buttoned down all the way. Button half-way down and slipped over. He was the first guy to make a necktie [from] the same material as his shirt, and make a bow-tie out of it. But he never put a shirt on that buttoned all the way down. That’s odd. Strayhorn was the same way. We could never tell – when they collaborated on an arrangement, we couldn’t tell where Duke left off and Strayhorn took over. That happened many times, but we couldn’t tell who did what. The story that I got from Strayhorn – he said that he joined the band as a lyricist, not as an arranger, before the band was getting ready to go to Europe. Strayhorn said he didn’t go to Europe with the band, but when he came back, he told Duke, “I write arrangements also.” He said, “You do?” He said, “Yeah. Here’s one arrangement.” It was Take the “A” Train. After Duke heard that, he put his arm around Strayhorn. He said, “You’re with me forever.” 

Brown: Did you ever see those two work together at the score, at the piano? 

Bellson: Yeah. A couple of times I did. 

Brown: What was that dynamic like? Was there much talking? What was it like? 

Bellson: Not too much talking. If Duke would get an idea, he’d say, “Strays” – we used to call him Strays – “Strays, do this.” Strays would pick up from him and continue. It was almost like they knew which way they were going before they did it. That’s unbelievable, but that’s true. 

Brown: Do you remember any particular pieces they were working on or any arrangements? 

Bellson: They never put a button on a measure. They never – [Bellson sings a cliched ending to a jazz piece]. Never. They did it with the old tunes, but some of the new stuff, they’d say, “Let’s figure out the ending – the last eight bars – on the record date.” They wouldn’t write it down. Duke would fill out the notes for him – or Strayhorn – they wouldn’t put anything on until later. That’s never been done before. 

Brown: Did Strayhorn have a name for Duke, other than Duke? 

Bellson: No. I don’t think so. I think he just called him Duke. I called Duke “Maestro.” 

Brown: Talk about that, how you came up with that title for Duke. 

Bellson: I don’t know. It just flowed one day. I said, “Well, Maestro, you sure played your buns off last night.” He said, “I like that. I like that. Maestro.” Then Pat Willard picked up on it. So from that [time on], I called him Maestro. I wrote a piece when I was in the band called Ortseam, which is maestro spelled backwards. I learned to do that from Duke’s band. They did that. That’s how they got titles.

Bellson: That experience with Duke – I listen to what Clark Terry says, “After playing with that band, I do everything like Duke would do it. I conduct my band [with] the same motions that Duke did.” Because he was so powerful that, when you spent a lot of time with him, that rubbed off on you, and you automatically did it. Clark says, “When I got my own band, I conducted the same way Duke could, because it was so right and so good that I just picked up on it and did it.” 

Bellson: Another thing about Duke’s band was, they never wrote a score. You see that manuscript paper here? That’s what we call – before the score happens, you jot down the original ideas on a score pad. 

Brown: A sketch. 

Bellson: Yeah. A sketch. Everything’s in the concert key. The copyist has to bring the trumpets up a tone. Trombones are okay in the bass clef. The altos, up a sixth. Tenors, up a tone and an octave. It’s all concert key. 

Brown: The Smithsonian has all his manuscripts, so you can see everything is in concert. 

Bellson: I’ve got some of those too. But Duke never liked to show people his ideas. He’d show certain people. He showed me how he voiced Caravan. One day he was – on an occasion he was up at the piano, he motioned to me, come here. I got up and sat down by the piano bench. This is Johnny Hodges. [Bellson sings the melody to Caravan.] Up chromatically. Here’s Procope. Here’s Paul [Gonsalves]. You put that all together. The wild thing about Duke’s band is, every individual was a soloist in that band, and yet collectively they sounded great together. They breathed a certain air in their horns. Where were you going to get another player like Harry Carney, that baritone sound? Lawrence Brown. Rex Stewart. Cat Anderson. Clark Terry. Russell Procope. Jimmy Hamilton. Where are you going . . . ? – Johnny Hodges, the poet. You could give those same notes to a band, a sophisticated band, a good band in L.A., guys who could read their butts off. It won’t sound the same. That air that came from those individuals, that God-given air. That’s it. Once you hear that, that’s it. I had to pinch myself many times. It got so intense that I said, am I really here? Yeah, there’s Duke over there, playing piano. Especially a performance of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. You get to that last chorus, whew. That had to be a highlight. It reaches a point where you want to yell out something. Yeah, or something like that. I heard it now. I heard it. That’s the way Sam Woodyard kicked that band on that recording . . . Whew. Their bad night is anybody else’s great night. They never had a bad night. To them they called it a bad night, but it’s really intense. That’s what knocked me out so much. Those five saxophone players sound like ten, not necessarily in volume, but the fullness, the richness that came out of those horns. You had to hear it to appreciate it. I didn’t realize it, listening on record. But seeing it, sitting right next to those guys . . . 

Brown: You were with Duke from ’51 through early ’53. 

Bellson: Yeah. 

Brown: And you left. What were the circumstances of your departure? 

Bellson: Meeting Pearl. Because I couldn’t do both. When she was busy doing her things, and I became the musical conductor for her – and I had Don Redman as the bandleader. There’s a name. There was another genius. Him and Benny Carter wrote most of the tunes for Pearl. Don Redman. Again, there was a tiny man, but a genius. Chant of the Weed. 

Brown: Yeah, it goes all the way back to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. 

Bellson: That’s right. He’s the guy that started the big band scene, like through Tommy Dorsey and Marie. He started that. He started the bands with the four trumpets and three trombones, and the four trombones, because there was always three trumpets and two trombones. Don Redman. And a beautiful guy. I spent six months out of the year with him every year. He came to visit us. We went out together. We wrote music together. I got to know who he – what Don Redman was like. Fabulous. What a humanitarian. What a genius. Fun. 

Brown: You mentioned Benny Carter. 

Bellson: Benny Carter’s the same way. Oh boy. If you say Benny Carter to Don Redman, Don says, “He’s the boss.” Or vice versa. If you go to Benny about that, “He’s the boss.” They both wrote most of the charts for Pearl. I remember one incident where Pearl liked the way Erroll Garner played, especially From this Moment – no. what’s the name? – For Once in My Life. The thing that Tony Bennett sings, only Erroll Garner does it up tempo. [Bellson sings the opening phrase of For Once in My Life at a brisk tempo.] She liked the way Erroll played it, so she called Benny Carter once and said, “Benny, get the record of Erroll Garner playing For Once in My Life and put all the notes that he played on the piano in the band.” Why did he do that? It was almost impossible to play, but we played it. A lot of rehearsing. Imagine picking out all those notes the same. It took a guy like Benny Carter to transcribe all those notes that Erroll Garner played. 

I took that arrangement on “The Tonight Show” with Doc Severinson once. Doc said, “I’m going to go ahead and warm up, Lou, in my little practice room. You got the rehearsal.” So I said, “Okay. Pick out For Once in My Life.” All the guys started sweating. “Gee whiz.” So Doc came running out of the dressing room. “What was that?” I said, “What?” “That arrangement. What is that?” I said, “Oh, I just finished playing that in Lima, Ohio, with a college band.” Which is a lie. He said, “You did what?” I said, “We just played it in Lima, Ohio, with a college band. They played the daylights out of it.” “Play it again guys.” They played it three or four times for Doc Severinson. He didn’t believe it. So I told him the history of that. He said to me, “No wonder.” Wow. We made him sweat. That’s interesting. That’s Benny Carter for you, and Erroll Garner. They could do it. “The Tonight Show” had a heavy band. They had Snooky Young, Clark Terry. They had Conte Candoli. They had Tommy Newsome, Pete Christlieb. They had a lot of heavies on that band, and they struggled with it. I finally laughed. Doc looked at me and said, “You’re kidding me that Lima, Ohio . . .” I said, “No. They didn’t play that. I wouldn’t put that on them.” 

Brown: They’d be having nightmares to this day. 

Bellson: We pull that out only on bands that thought they could play good. “Oh, you think you can play good? Okay. Let me hear you play this.” 

Brown: How big was the band that you had for Pearl Bailey? How large was it? 

Bellson: A regular big band: four trumpets – sometimes five trumpets – four ’bones, five reeds, piano, bass, and drums. Once in a while we had a guitar player. No percussion player. 

Brown: So you’re conductor, not drummer? You didn’t do both duties? 

Bellson: Oh yeah. I let Don do the conducting. I let Don do the tempos. I started the tempos off. He was good with it. He knew the tempos too. Then later on, when Don passed away, I took over as – leading from the drums, because Pearl’s television show – in 1972 she did 15 shows. That band – the trumpet section was Sweets Edison, Snooky Young, Cat Anderson, and Conte Candoli, and Johnny . . .  Ray Brown was the bass player. Joe Pass was the guitar player. Don Abney was the piano player. Jimmie Cheatham was one of the trombone players. It was an all-star band. All the violins and everything. 40 men. I conducted that whole show. I had a real problem playing drums. 

Brown: So your role was musical director? And conductor? 

Bellson: Yeah. 

Brown: So that lasted from 1953 until . . .? Was that your main musical focus? 

Bellson: That was after Pearl did Hello, Dolly. 1972, for the next 15 weeks, it was three heavyweights. The first show was Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Andy Williams. The second show was Tony Bennett, Lucille Ball, and Perry Como. Three heavyweights every show. We had Tina Turner on, Ethel Waters, Erroll Garner, everybody. Three heavyweights for 15 shows. And we can’t locate those tapes now. That’s a shame. They’re going to show up somehow, somewhere. They better, because otherwise it’s a – Ella was on. Sarah was on. Peggy Lee. Pearl did a “Kraft Music Hall once, and she had – her guests were Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Pearl was right in the middle of them. They did a medley for 15 minutes. After they did that medley, Ella and Sarah walked toward me and said, “Your old lady can really sing.” I said, “I know that.” Pearl said, “I felt like I was in the middle of two Zildjian cymbals.” I told that to Armen. He got a big kick out of that. That’s a good description. They swung, too. That’s on tape. It’s on videotape. 

Brown: Let’s talk more about your career. Jazz at the Philharmonic. That’s 1954. 

Bellson: Yeah, right. 

Brown: How did that come about, and what was that experience like? 

Bellson: That’s when I got to – I owe Norman Granz a great thanks for having me play with all those great players, like Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown – of course I played with Ray before with a quartet – a trio and a quartet. That was one of the first times that Oscar had me on the bill with him almost every place he played. Because Ed Thigpen was first. Then I came over later. Norman would call me and say, “Lou, I’ve got a record date for you.” I’d say, “Who is it?” He said, “Art Tatum.” Oh my goodness. I said, “What’d you say again?” Art Tatum and Benny Carter and myself. No bass. Just a trio. You got a record of that? Kimery: A friend of mine made a copy, because I was looking for it, because I had to hear that. We had to hear that. 

Brown: We had to listen to it before coming to interview you. Art Tatum and Benny Carter and Louie Bellson. 

Bellson: I drove in with Benny Carter. We drove together. When we opened up the door at the studio in Hollywood, Tatum was sitting at the piano. He looked at us – he could see a little bit. Very little – he looked at us, and he said, “I hope you guys don’t play anything fast.” Benny Carter and I said, he hopes we don’t play anything fast. We hope he don’t playing anything . . . He did something on this record date – let me see if I can find it – I’m left with the blues in my heart. That song. Tatum is known for knowing almost every good tune that was written, but he didn’t know about that tune. So he told Benny Carter – he said, “Play the melody for me.” Benny played the melody for him on the alto. That’s not the chorus, right? That’s just the melody. After Benny played the melody, he was going to play the chorus for Art Tatum. Tatum said, “No, no. Norman, roll the tape.” He played all the right changes and went way beyond that. Tatum did. 

Brown: He never even heard of it. 

Bellson: Never heard it. So Benny Carter and I say, that’s Art Tatum. He and Oscar Peterson were two giants. Oscar overwhelmingly also, like Tatum. That tape we did with Oscar and John Heard is fabulous. We played Cute. You know what tempo they played it? It’s usually [Bellson sings the melody at a relaxed tempo]. Oscar played it [Bellson sings it at an extremely fast tempo]. 

Brown: How are you going to get your breaks in? 

Bellson: Then he turned around to me and laughed. Oh man. Then Sweet Georgia Brown is so fast, it’s unbelievable. Only he can play at those tempos. But I enjoyed working with Oscar, too. He was a giant musician. He could really play. Speaking of tapes, the next to last thing that Duke recorded was something we did out in California. I played drums. Joe Pass is on guitar and Ray Brown on bass and Duke. Just the four of us. You know about that one? He called it Duke’s Big Four. 

Brown: Oh yeah. I remember seeing that. [?] for Pablo. Norman Granz [?]. 

Brown: So you toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic? You went to Europe? 

Bellson: Yes. 

Brown: What was that like? 

Bellson: Fabulous. It was in every language a highlight. All the guys played well. I played – the drummers were Buddy Rich and myself. Ella Fitzgerald always closed the show, which she should. Who’s going to follow that? She was great. Playing for her, we took turns. I’d play the first half. Then Buddy would play the second part of the tour. The first part was, all the instruments played. The second part was always the guest artists, like Lionel Hampton, Buddy DeFranco, and Oscar and Ray Brown. A lot of music came out of that. Working with Dizzy [Gillespie] and Lester Young. 

Brown: When you have a group of musicians like that who come from so many different styles, what was not to like? To be the drummer and to be responsive to all those different types of approaches? 

Bellson: I think Norman was smart. The way he did it was, he delegated Oscar to be the “padrone,” so to speak, because there always has to be somebody that says, what do you want to play? What do you want to play? What key do you want to do it in? How do you want to begin and end it? That’s all. That’s all you need. The in-between comes from there. But that was good, because Oscar was the right man to do it. Being a piano player, he could sort out the key. When [?] would say, I’ll do one of my tunes in e-flat, and I’ll take the last two choruses. That’s it. With those kind of players, you could do that. But the key to it was Oscar being able to handle players like that. Once in a while somebody would – like Lionel would turn around – which he usually did – and say, “Wait a minute. I got it.” He’d go into another tune. So that’s okay. We followed him. But that was great. That gave Oscar a chance to shine too and gave the guys a chance to pick out what they wanted to play. Like with Coleman Hawkins, I remember a time he wanted to do Body and Soul. We know the key. Let him go. The other guys just sat around while he played it. Just let him have it. When you have – I think that Norman has the idea he’d never hire that group before, if it would jell. Like saxophone players: Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. There’s different styles altogether, but yet Norman said they could play together, because they’re that great. It didn’t make any difference what style they were. They were in that era. Like Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge. Dizzy, Roy Eldridge, and Charlie Shavers. Or Dizzy and Sweets. Those combinations worked. You put them with anybody, and they worked. Norman knew that. 

Brown: Was this your first tour of Europe? 

Bellson: No, I did – wait a minute – I did Japan with him, and the States. 

Brown: When was the first time you had gone back to – or gone to Italy? 

Bellson: That’s another story. This is really, really a funny one. We got to Europe. Venice, Italy, was one of the dates. They got some material on me way before I got there. “Here’s an Italian drummer. His name is Luigi Paulino . . .” All the press was waiting to hear the kid with the two bass drums. They were ready for me. What happened was, the night before we played in – somewhere in Italy. I forget where it was – we had to cross the water to get to Venice to play that gig on a Saturday night. So the little Italian guy driving the truck was scared of Norman. Norman has these high, bushy eyebrows. That kid was afraid of him. So instead of telling Norman, “I didn’t pick up the drums at the Victory station” – because we had to go three hours by boat. I guess three hours by boat. We had to go a long ways – the car and then the boat – to get to Venice. And I didn’t have my drums with him. The kid forgot to tell Norman I didn’t have the drums. Oh man. Here I am, stuck, Saturday night in Venice. No drums. All the good drummers that would have gotten my stuff, they’re all busy working. The only guy that I could find was some old guy that hadn’t played for 40 years. He had a bass drum that you hit it once and it collapsed. The player collapsed. I got on a half brass cymbal. No hi-hat. And I had to play two shows like that. All the press are going like this. [Bellson speaks Italian]. An Italian gesture, like, what is this guy? Is he kidding? Where are his two bass drums? He sounds terrible. I’ve never been able to go back to Venice to redeem myself. You can imagine. Oscar and Ray – when it came time for my solo, I kept saying, “Come on. Keep on playing. Keep on playing.” Oh man. They got a half-brass cymbal, a foot-pedal that gave out on me after the first measure. The bass drum was lousy. No hi-hat. No ride cymbal. A pair of sticks. No brushes. You talk about being in a spot. When I hear the name Venice, I know they don’t want to hear my name – or maybe if I go there, I’ll come with my drum set and prepare it. That broke everybody up. Norman tried to tell the press what happened, but they weren’t going for it. The [?] said, “What happened? He sounded terrible.” I said, “Anyone would sound terrible on a set of drums like that.” That’s all I could find, because all the good Italian drummers were busy that night. It was a Saturday night. And two shows – we had two concerts to do. Ah. I don’t bring it up with every interview, because I feel it was terrible. Oscar and Ray, they were laughing. And Joe Pass. He said, “You keep that set with you. That was good.” “No thanks.” 

Brown: Did you ever make it to either Naples or Milano? 

Bellson: Yeah. 

Brown: So you got to meet some of your family back there? 

Bellson: Yeah. I met a lot of cousins on my mother’s side. Very little on my dad’s side, but my mother had a lot of cousins in Milano. I heard a lot of good players over there too, in Milano especially – northern Italy. 

Brown: How did your mother get the nickname Curly? 

Bellson: She had curly hair, and she’s little. We called her Puny too. She was about that high. And really could cook good. I’m telling you. 

Brown: Yeah, Duke . . . 

Bellson: Duke came to my house, and when he did, he ate a whole turkey by himself. Yeah, he did. I forgot to tell you that. Then he ate the dessert too. It was a cream – heavy cream. Like a yellow – we call it custard – Italian custard. He ate that on top of the whole turkey. Those guys could eat. 

Brown: Let’s take a little break here, because we’re getting up onto A Drum is a Woman, which is really important. [recording interrupted] 

The next hallmark in your career, or at least one of the ones in the mid-’50s, would have been the recording of Duke Ellington’s magnum opus, A Drum is a Woman. 

Bellson: Did they give me credit for doing that? Because most of that, Sam Woodyard did – most of that. I did My People

Brown: So that would have been the ’60s. 

Bellson: That was the ’60s. 

Brown: And then Sacred Concert as well. 

Bellson: Yeah. 

Brown: The first Sacred Concert was in the ’60s. 

Bellson: Right. Yeah. 

Brown: So after you left Ellington in early ’53, that was pretty much it until you came back to do those particular projects? 

Bellson: Yeah, right. 

Brown: Okay. So then in the mid-’50s – they’ll have to correct this one. We’ll send them a message that they need to correct this. They have you listed as recording A Drum is a Woman. I knew Sam was on that, but I didn’t know if you had participated as well. 

Bellson: I think I did a very little bit of A Drum is a Woman. I don’t know whether they give me credit. But I know Sam did most of it, Sam Woodyard. 

Sam was a great drummer. 

Brown: Then from ’55 to ’56 you were back with the Dorsey brothers? How did that come about? 

Bellson: Tommy Dorsey was very friendly with Jackie Gleason. Jackie Gleason wanted to do “The Honeymooners” for just 30 minutes and devote the other 30 minutes to the Dorsey brothers, Jimmy and Tommy. That band had – Charlie Shavers was in that band. That was a lot of fun. We did a whole season of shows. I’ve got some tapes of those. That was a really good band. 

Brown: Who else was in the band other than Charlie Shavers? 

Bellson: Let me see. Who else was in that band? He was the only big star. The other guys were all good players, but Charlie was the main key. Then I had a chance to go to Europe with Basie. Sonny Payne got sick. I recorded with Basie – did an album with him. Then we left for Europe. I was supposed to go into Birdland with my small band, but they canceled that out so I could help Basie out in Europe. That was six weeks there. Oh boy. That was a lot of fun. Thad Jones was in the band. Al Grey, Frank . . . 

Brown: Frank Foster?  Frank Wess?

 Bellson: Yes, both of them. Boy, what a band that was. The lead alto player was Marshall Royal. I mentioned Thad Jones, didn’t I?  Freddie Green – a time clock. Brown: 

Brown: So you played with Duke Ellington in the early ’50s and then you ended up playing with Count Basie. That must be a study in contrast. Compare and contrast that. What was it like working with Count Basie? 

Bellson: Great. He was trying to lose weight and not drink. He knew that I’d go to the grocery store every day and stock up, because afterwards, a certain time of year, the restaurants closed. So every night for six weeks I’d hear a knock on my door – bam bam. I said, “Who is it?” “It’s me, Base.” Come in. We’d start talking about our experiences. Boy, you talk about experience, right there. They were funny. He was a real comedian. I’m trying to remember some of the things he said. One thing he said was – this was way before he got married – he was going with this young girl, a happy girl, a really nicelooking girl. She was – Basie accompanied her quite a bit. There was another guy that she was interested in. His name was Olly. Olly was like 6'-6" and weighed 250 pounds, all muscle. So, she came in – his girlfriend – Basie’s girlfriend came in one day. Her eyes were all black. She had blood all over. Basie was in bed. He said, “Who did that? What happened to you? What’s the matter?” As he’s saying this, he’s taking his pajamas off and putting his clothes on. When he got fully clothed, she mentioned Olly’s name. When he heard Olly’s name, he took his clothes back off, put his pajamas on, and went back to bed. I laughed until I cried. I could just see him doing that. “Olly – why’d you mess around with that man’s wife?” That experience was – talking about life. His daughter was an invalid. He talked very highly about her, how loving she was. He was a very soulful man. He was very much like Duke, Basie was. Every night was – like Ellington’s band, every night was a pleasure. The band really swung hard. There’s some records out on – there’s all of Basie’s Europe, with me on there. What was it, ’62? Quite a few cuts on there by me – mostly – and Sonny Payne, and some with Butch Miles, another great drummer. He’s touring with the band now. All those young whippersnappers. They’re all good players. Working with Basie, him and Duke gave me that freedom. The wonderful thing about the two of those guys was that they’re both piano players and they never gave you like a 1-2, 1-2-3-4, which is really hard to grab the groove. They played the piano for about a chorus or two choruses until a groove is set. Boy, that makes a difference if you do it that way.  He always had little introductions, even on his recordings. 

Brown: Are you ready to wrap up? Okay. We’ll just go ahead. This is completing the  third tape of the first day of the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History interview with Louie Bellson at his home in San Jose. He is being interviewed by Anthony Brown and also Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Institution. We’ll continue again tomorrow.  

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