Louie Bellson, Dynamic Jazz Drummer, Dies at 84

Published: February 17, 2009

Louie Bellson, a crisp and dazzling drummer who worked with many of the major figures of the swing era and a gracious entertainer who made frequent appearances at the White House and on “The Tonight Show,” died on Saturday in Los Angeles.

Louie Bellson playing percussion with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1952, with, from left, Cat Anderson and Clark Terry.

He was 84 and lived in Los Angeles. His death was announced by Remo, the drum company for which he was a vice president. Matt Connors, the company’s manager for artist relations, said Mr. Bellson had been recovering from a broken hip since November.

Mr. Bellson was a dynamic, spectacular soloist known for his use of two bass drums, a technique he pioneered as a teenager and developed from a novelty into a serious mode of expression. But he wasn’t strictly a solo exhibitionist: his attentiveness and precision made him a highly successful sideman, and he was capable of extreme subtlety.

He always proudly maintained that Duke Ellington had called him the world’s greatest drummer. During his tenure with the Ellington band in the early 1950s he was often granted a long drum feature, which he attacked with relish and poise. He also wrote compositions like “The Hawk Talks” and “Skin Deep” that were regularly performed by the band. Later, in 1965, he participated in Ellington’s first Sacred Concert.

Before joining Ellington’s band, Mr. Bellson logged time with the top-flight orchestras of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. He later worked briefly with Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. As a regular on the impresario Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tours in the 1950s, he appeared in combos with all-stars like the trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, the alto saxophonist Benny Carter, and the pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.

Belson, Bailey with their pet Mr. Riley. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Belson, Bailey with their pet Mr. Riley. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In 1952 Mr. Bellson married the singer and actress Pearl Bailey, who had a Top 10 hit that year with her version of “Takes Two to Tango.” He became her bandleader, and their high visibility was significant at a time when interracial relationships were far from common.

Partly because of Ms. Bailey’s political views, the couple enjoyed warm relationships with the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, and they were often invited to the White House.

Ms. Bailey died in 1990. Among Mr. Bellson’s survivors is Francine Bellson, his second wife and manager.

Mr. Bellson was born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni in Rock Falls, Ill., on July 6, 1924. His father owned a music store, and he began playing drums at age 3. He was a considerable talent by his teenage years: at 17 he won the Slingerland National Gene Krupa contest, beating out thousands of other young competitors. (Krupa, one of the world’s most popular drummers at the time, picked him as the winner.)

The combination of energy, precision and showmanship that marked Mr. Bellson’s playing was perfect for the big-band era and made him a worthy competitor and colleague to the other drummers in his league. Buddy Rich, with whom he sometimes sparred in heavily promoted drum battles, was among those who professed their lifelong admiration.

Mr. Bellson also led his own bands for decades: small groups as well as ensembles like the Big Band Explosion. In 1969 his was the band chosen to back James Brown on “Soul on Top,” a crossover jazz album released on the King label. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Mr. Bellson spoke appreciatively of popular music, including rock ’n’ roll, throughout his career.

He was also a prolific composer who performed and recorded a number of his own pieces, sometimes branching beyond swing to orchestral and choral work. Especially in his later years, he was a tireless educator and clinician who nurtured generations of young musicians, particularly fellow drummers.

Among the honors Mr. Bellson received were a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Living Jazz Legend Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was also designated an ASCAP Jazz Living Legend by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Mr. Bellson remained active until his recent injury. On his own label, Percussion Power, he released “The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson & the Jazz Ballet,” which included a big band, strings and a choir, in 2006. His most recent album — “Louie & Clark Expedition 2,” made with the trumpeter Clark Terry — was released last year.


The first video was Mr Belson performing on Johnny Carson ‘s Tonight Show in 1988. This second drum solo performance is from 1957.

Published in: on February 17, 2009 at 2:30 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. He makes it look so damn easy!

    • Yep! That is the sign of true genius!

      With all the recent musical passings there must be a helluva non-stop concert going on in Heaven and now Mr. Bellson is there to keep the beat 😉

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