February 26, 2009

Louie Bellson (1924-2009)

This blog is my humble tribute to Louie Bellson, one of the most important drummers in music history. He passed away on February 14, 2009 at the age of 84.

He's a true-blue musician and a drumming innovator (no Louie Bellson, no double bass drums). I remember watching this old, mid-80's-era video during my college years called "Superdrumming". It featured Louie Bellson, Simon Phillips, Gerry Brown, Ian Paice, and other notable drummers and percussionists, and it was filmed and recorded at an old German cathedral. The biggest memory I ever had on that video was Mr. Bellson's legendary "Skin Deep" drum solo. That was one of the greatest drum solos I've ever seen and heard. His technique was flawless, and he had a great sense of musicality and showmanship. And during that time, he was already in his 60's, yet he was playing with the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-something drummer.

Another highlight for me, from the aforementioned video, was the drum duet of Louie Bellson and Simon Phillips. The latter is one of my favorite drummers, and I consider him as a great influence. That duet is like an old school/new school representation of great double bass drummers. The way they traded licks, I can somehow hear where Simon and other modern contemporary double bass drummers are coming from. We owe so much to Mr. Bellson. He's the true pioneer of double bass drumming.

Plus, based on all the stuff I read about him, Mr. Bellson is said to be one of the nicest men ever in the drumming community. A true gentleman, he's a blessing from God.

Take time to read the Louie Bellson piece I posted below, which I copied from Modern Drummer's website. There are plenty of quotes and words of wisdom worth remembering (I bold-faced the important lines in red). I'm looking forward to their June 2009 tribute issue.


Louie Bellson, 1924-2009 (copied from Modern Drummer)

Louie Bellson, the swing drumming great who passed away on February 14 at the age of eighty-four, was born into a musical family on July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Illinois. At thirteen he could sing most of the famous operatic arias. He studied classical music, familiarizing himself with Bartok, Stravinsky, and Beethoven and simultaneously developed his jazz drumming skills.

Initially inspired by Chick Webb and Sid Catlett, Louie found his drumming voice very early on by combining the clear melodic phrasing and rudimental soloing style of Gene Krupa with the swinging groove of Papa Jo Jones and the extraordinary speed of Buddy Rich.

Louie's professional career began right out of high school, in Ted Fio Rito's band. He quickly moved on to the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Harry James. In the mid-1950s, Louie served as drummer and musical director for vocalist, actress, and UN ambassador Pearl Bailey, to whom he was married for thirty-eight years.

Louie's discography includes more than two hundred albums with the greats of the jazz era, including the aforementioned Goodman, Dorsey, Ellington, and James, as well as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Louis Armstong, and Lionel Hampton. He also worked with vocalists like Mel Tormé, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Ever ready to expand his musical horizons, in 1969 Louie made a recording with James Brown called "Soul On Top". As a composer, Louie wrote or arranged more than a thousand pieces, from jazz to sacred works.

When Louie performed, you could hear the early swing that was predominant when he was coming up, the more refined swing that he and his generation perfected in the heyday of the big bands, the bop that flourished in the 1940s and '50s, and modern rock and funk. Those influences gave Louie's playing remarkable depth, allowing him to sound traditional and contemporary at once.

No less a musical giant than Duke Ellington summed up Louie's abilities by saying, "Louie Bellson has all the requirements for perfection in his craft. He is the world's greatest drummer.”

Besides his great technique and always-musical approach to the drums, Louie Bellson was responsible for designing the first double bass drum setup and popularizing its use—thus pioneering a new approach that was later adopted by many rock drummers. Louie told the story of how his double bass drumkit came about, saying, "In 1938, when I was still a senior in high school, I drew up a two–bass drum setup. No drum company would touch the idea, though, until Gretsch made a kit for me in 1946. I used it first in Ted Fio Rito's band, then with Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington. In Tommy's band I was set up on a revolving platform. During my drum solo, the kit would spin around so that everyone could see what I was doing."

Louie was equally at home in a big band or a small group. Explaining his approach to each, he said, "With a big band, things are blocked out for you on written charts. With a small band, everything is improvised, so you have to have a lot of invention going. The key is to listen to and look at one another."

"In a small group you need plenty of sensitivity," he went on. "In a big band, you have to have strength and power. In some of those bands, when they hit a double ff chord, you can hear it around the block. As a drummer, you have to be ready for that kind of power. Be loud…but be musically loud."
A veteran of road work for more than sixty years, Louie had this advice for touring drummers: "You're playing a physical instrument, so your arms and legs need to be in shape, and you have to take care of yourself. Be careful of what you eat, get plenty of rest, and don't get drunk or use dope, because if you do you won't last long. They used to call me ‘Apples' when I was starting out, because I always had a sack of apples with me on the bus. Everybody else was getting drunk, and I was eating apples.”

Louie also encouraged drummers to study and diversify. "Young drummers must have a good teacher," he said, "and they must listen to recordings to get the jazz feel, the contemporary 8th-note feel, R&B, and rock. It's also important for drummers to learn to read music. And, if possible, take piano lessons and learn harmony and theory. It makes you a better musician. Even if you're a good reader, though, don't bury your head in the part. Keep your ears and eyes open, and always pay attention to the bandleader for cues."

“Young drummers should learn the history of the instrument," Louie continued. "You have to know where you came from in order to know where you're going. If you have tremendous respect for your instrument and treat it accordingly, then everything you do has to be good. If you don't have respect for drums and music, you should get out of the business.”

Louie Bellson was still performing his magic on the drums well into his eighties. "I always think of the guy who carries a lunch pail to a factory," Louie once said, "where he works eight hours at something he might not want to do. My lunch pail is full of drumsticks, and my job is going on the bandstand and working at something I love to do. God has given me the talent to write music and play drums. Maybe the last thing I'll do is hit a rimshot or a cymbal, and I'll go out that way. But at least I'll go out swinging."

When MD interviewed Louie Bellson in 2004 on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, we started off by asking him about his favorite recordings.

Louie: Duke Ellington, "Skin Deep" and "The Hawk Talks." For me, to have Duke look at me and say, "You're a composer as well as a drummer," was amazing. He had to ask me several times to bring music in, because when I joined that band there were two geniuses writing for it—Duke and Billy Strayhorn. What was I doing bringing in my music? Finally, Juan Tizol said, "Bring the music in," and Duke said again, "Bring the music in." I said, "Well, I'd better or I might lose my gig."

I brought in those pieces and Duke recorded them right off the bat. Max Roach told me a long time ago that he idolized Duke and said how fortunate I was that he played my music. I said, "Max, I still can't get over it." A lot of drummers would give their right hand—or left hand—to play one number with someone like Duke or Basie. I still can't believe it happened to me.

MD: Do you recall recording "Skin Deep"?

Louie: "Skin Deep" was very different. In those days it was difficult to record fast drum and cymbal parts. When that record came out, Buddy Rich called me and said, "Where did you record that?" I told him we did it live in Fresno, California in an old ballroom. The quality of the recording turned out so good that when we took it to Columbia, they said they couldn't do a better job than that. When Duke heard it in a playback the night we did it, he said, "That's how we're going to do ‘Skin Deep.'" [The track can be found on Ellington Uptown.] "The Hawk Talks" was done at a studio in New York.

MD: Tell us a story about Duke Ellington.

Louie: People would ask what kind of man he was. Well, he was the kind of man who had his door open for us all the time. The reason he had people in his band for fifty years was because they were like family.
When I joined the band, there was no drum book. I had to just sit down and start playing. That was easy for me because, playing in a jazz band, I could look over at the trombone or trumpet part and see where I was.
One time Duke called me to come to New York to play with Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic Orchestra. When I got there, there were a hundred twenty-five musicians all ready to play. There were only two players from Duke's regular band—the bass player and me. We were performing a tune called "The Golden Broom And The Green Apple," twenty-five minutes of music that Duke wrote, and I had nothing to go by. I was sitting there at the stand, and Duke came up on the bandstand, ready to give a downbeat. He looked at me and he could tell I was worried when I shrugged my shoulders. He said, "The first part's in 3/4." I said, "Thanks." That was it. He lowered his hands for a downbeat, I started playing, and watched him real close for an hour and a half.

During the first break, the other musicians asked if I had memorized the piece. I told them I had never heard it before in my life. Duke was a great conductor. That first day, I took the score home with me and made a complete drum part. Then, before we finished recording, I said, "Duke, here's a drum part for whoever comes in after me to play it." He said, "Now you know why I didn't write a drum part. I got you to do it and you're the best." But that experience was one of the most exciting things that happened to me in that band.

MD: Other favorite recordings?

Louie: Soul On Top with James Brown. It was done in 1969. James Brown called me, and I asked, "Are you sure you've got the right guy?" He said he had Ira Nelson write the charts and he was going to do an album of half jazz and half his band. That record was just released on CD.

MD: James Brown is a lot different from Duke Ellington.

Louie: I thought it was strange too, but he explained to me that his roots were in jazz and he wanted to do something with some of his favorite players. We clicked right off. Ray Brown played bass on it. And James did a song I wrote for him called "I Need Your Key (To Turn Me On)," which is on there.

MD: Benny Goodman was notoriously difficult to work with. What was your experience with him?

Louie: It was a great experience. Benny knew how to rehearse a band. First of all, he was a great player. Yes, he was a little weird. Sometimes he'd look at me and call me by a different name—"Hey, Pops." I joined the band at seventeen years old and took Gene Krupa's place. I was playing "Sing Sing Sing" and everything was going great. And then, all of a sudden, Benny fired me. All the guys in the band asked him, "Why did you fire that kid?" And Benny said, "I don't know."

When I got home, my dad was at the train station to meet me, and he said, "Benny Goodman's kept me up all night by constantly calling. Go back to New York. He wants you back in the band." Benny never told me what he was thinking of, but one of the guys said, "You were too good." After that, we got along great. He was a master musician.

MD: How did you feel as a seventeen-year-old going on the road with such a famous musician?

Louie: Well, I was overly confident. But I thought I was ready because I had a lot of experience playing with small groups and big bands.

MD: That brings up a good point. You're acknowledged as being a drummer who can make the music work in either a small group or big band setting. Can you explain the difference in a drummer's approach to both?

Louie: Volume is one difference. Another is interpretation. When you're playing in a small group, you're working with fewer players and you have to have a lot of invention going. With a big band, things are blocked off for you. There are written charts, while with a small band, everything is improvised. The key is that you have to listen to one another and look at one another.

Rhythm sections must have eye contact. I learned that from Basie, who said, "If I have a drummer, I want to see him because I may give him one of these [raised eyebrows] or one of these [frown]." Eye contact and listening are important.

MD: They say that it's difficult to make your life in jazz. Have you found that to be true?

Louie: In some cases I have. So many musicians had to go to Europe for their just due. They rolled out the red carpet for Dizzy, Bird, Duke, and Benny. Here, for a long time the word "jazz" meant you were a dope-head. But thank God for college students, who back in the '60s and '70s knew about good music. The colleges were our saviors.

MD: Tell us about your earliest thoughts about the double bass drumset.

Louie: I was a tap dancer as a kid; my sister was a very good tap dancer too. But that background inspired me to want to put the left leg to work, not only on the hi-hat, but with something more. Plus I'm ambidextrous. So in 1938, I drew up a two bass drum setup. My teacher walked over and said, "What's that?" I said, "I'm inventing a double bass drumset," and he said, "You do that and I'll pass you." In 1939 and 1940, when my career was just getting started, I approached a drum company who said, "You and Buck Rogers ought to go to the moon. You're crazy." It took a little time. But once I got it started, I used it in Ted Fio Rito's band, Tommy Dorsey's band, and, of course, with Duke.

MD: You made a big splash with your drumming early on. But you also seemed to know from a young age that you wanted to be a composer. How did you know that?

Louie: My father. He played all the instruments. By the time I was twelve, he made me aware of the keyboards. I complained, "Dad, I don't want to learn the piano, I want to play drums." He said, "You're going to play drums, but go to the keyboard and I'll give you your first lesson in harmony and theory." Well, after that, I was like a vacuum cleaner. I couldn't get enough time with him on harmony and theory. As I said, I learned all of the arias and would sing them as a kid just because I loved them. I used to be called "Tido" when I was a kid—“do re mi fa sol la TI DO”—because I would be singing. And my dad would say, "Whatever idea you come up with, sing it. Then put it together and write a tune."

MD: Of your compositions, which are your favorites?

Louie: One of my favorite pieces is one I received a Grammy nomination for five years ago, "Ellington And Strayhorn Medley." It was for big band. Another one would be "Concerto For Drumset And Full Orchestra." I wrote that with Harold Faberman, who was with the Boston Symphony. It was for a full orchestra. It's about a thirty-five-minute piece.

MD: You still keep busy?

Louie: Oh, yeah. I write every day. It might be four bars, it might be eight. And I put the sticks in my hands every day. I practice on a pad or get in my car and go down to Remo's place and play on a drumset. I have a drumset in San Jose, where we also live. So if I get called for a gig, I know my hands and feet are ready for it. At eighty years old, there are a lot of guys who aren't walking too well. I know some fifty-year-old guys who don't.

MD: What do you do to stay in shape?

Louie: I do a lot of walking, I go to therapy three times a week, and I watch my diet and get plenty of rest. If you do that, you can last a lot longer. I know there will be a time when I have to say I can't do it anymore, at least on a full scale. For now I'm cutting back gradually and doing what I can do well. I'm not going to go out on stage and make a fool of myself—I won't do that to me or to my audience. I have too much respect for my audience.


More Louie Bellson reference/tribute sites:

Louie Bellson's Official Website

Hudson Music's tribute


Zildjian Remembers The Maestro

Louie Bellson on Wikipedia

On Youtube, just type "Louie Bellson" on the search bar.

Rest In Peace, Master Louie Bellson.

Photos from drummerworld.com.