Jazz drummer louie bellson dead at age 84

by Ted Gioia

Louie Bellson, who passed away on Valentine's Day at age 84, made his mark as a leading jazz drummer during a career that spanned eight decades. On January 28, Bellson had been released from a hospital, where he had been recovering from a broken hip, and was reportedly undergoing physical therapy as part of a rehabilitation regimen. Bellson had also suffered from Parkinson's disease for the last eight years of his life, and complications associated with this ailment were given as the cause of the drummer's death. Bellson died at his home in Los Angeles. A funeral is planned for Los Angeles, and Bellson will be buried in his home town Moline, Illinois.

Duke Ellington lauded him as "the world's greatest drummer” and jazz critic Leonard Feather singled him out as “one of the most phenomenal drummers in history.” In short, Louie Bellson was the quintessential swing percussionist, gifted with a remarkable technique, and a flair for the visceral and dramatic elements of jazz performance. Whether driving a big band, accompanying a singer, or pulling out all the stops with one of his extended drum solos—which might take center stage for up to fifteen minutes—Bellson was a consummate professional, an artist of the drumset, yet also a skilled entertainer who knew how to wow an audience.

Louie Bellson

Drummer Louie Bellson was born as Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni on July 6, 1924 in Rock Falls, Illinois. He started playing the drums at the age of three. While he was still in high school, Bellson won the Slingerland National Gene Krupa contest—rising to the top in a competition that drew more than 40,000 drummers. At age 15, he adopted an innovative double bass drum set-up, later emulated by many—from jazz stars such as Ray McKinley and Ed Shaughnessy to rock icons Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of the Who.

Bellson recorded and performed with a who's who of jazz and pop royalty, including Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Harry James, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Joe Williams and the drummer's late wife Pearl Bailey. He was a six-time Grammy nominee, and in 1994 was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1998 Zildjian honored Bellson as one of only four “Living Legends of Music”—alongside Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Max Roach.

But he also made his mark as a clinician and educator, an author of more than a dozen books, and a wide-ranging composer whose works include a Broadway musical (Portofino, which featured Bellson’s music with lyrics by Ney and Sheldon Harnick), symphonic works, sacred music, a jazz ballet (The Marriage Vows), and many big band charts. Bellson reportedly wrote more than 1,000 compositions over the course of his career. But his mystique was perhaps best celebrated in a very amusing composition about the drummer, "The Louie Bellson Song" (performed here by Jay Leonhart).

Bellson came to the attention of the wider public in 1941 when he joined the Benny Goodman band. Bellson was already appearing on screen while still a teenager, making his film debut in The Power Girl (1942) alongside Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. After a stint in the military, Bellson worked as drummer with many of the leading big bands of the era, including those led by Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. From 1951-1953, Bellson worked as drummer in Duke Ellington’s band. His performance on "Skin Deep" from this period stands out as one of the defining statements of big band drumming. Bellson was also a frequent presence on various Norman Granz projects, holding down the drum chair on many seminal recordings as well as at Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic performances.

Louie Bellson & Clark Terry

Bellson was the only white musician in Ellington's band during this time of pervasive segregation across virtually all spheres of American life (reportedly inspiring Duke to tell people the drummer was a Haitian in order to avoid problems on a Southern tour). But Bellson crossed an even more controversial racial divide when, in November 1952, he married singer-actress Pearl Bailey in London. The couple decided on an location outside of the United States, because they felt that their interracial wedding might meet with a friendlier reception across the Atlantic. Their marriage lasted until Bailey’s death in 1990. Bellson remained active even in his 80s. His CD Louie and Clark Expedition 2, made with trumpeter Clark Terry, was released in 2008, although the disk focused more on Bellson's composing skills rather than his drum work. On his 80th birthday, when asked whether his advancing years might slow him down, Bellson quipped: "I'm not that old—I'm 40 in this leg, and 40 in the other leg."

Bellson is survived by Francine, his wife of 16 years and MIT-trained engineer, and two daughters, the singer Dee Dee Bellson and Debra Hughes, as well as two grandchildren and two brothers.

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February 16, 2009 · 3 comments

  • 1 Red Colm O'Sullivan // Feb 16, 2009 at 11:32 PM
    What a truly GREAT man. Oh boy...
  • 2 roger k meanor // Feb 17, 2009 at 04:50 AM
    thanks louie. drummers are the real musicians in the band as they have to know it all about the music. thanks for autographing my brush playing book by you at your performance it pittsburgh a good while. even though i am not a young pup anymore, listening to you play keeps me young in thought and aspiration.
  • 3 Valerie Johnson // Mar 18, 2009 at 09:29 PM
    Mr. Bellson and Ms. Bailey were both legends, and they both lived out loud and in color. That's how you live. We should all be so brave! God bless and keep them both.