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Some Personal Memories of a Drum Masterby W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 2009 W. Royal StokesJazz Notes
Louie Bellson, who began on the drums at the age of three, pioneered the double bass drum setup at 15. At 17 he won the Gene Krupa drumming contest, a competition that had attracted 40,000 participants. By the mid-1950s, Louie had already performed and recorded with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic.
He would go on to perform with greats including Jimmy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Joe Williams and his first wife, Pearl Bailey, who died in 1990. In the 1960s Louie formed his own big band and combo and remained at their helms until his death on February 14 in Los Angeles.
As jazz critic for The Washington Post in the 1970s and '80s, I reviewed Louie in performance in the DC area at several venues, including the Kennedy Center. I caught him there again much later with Benny Goodman, who was then in his final year of life.
I didn't meet Louie until the mid-1980s. Pete Christlieb of the Tonight Show Band was to be featured guest at the 1985 U.S. Navy Band Eighth International Saxophone Symposium, taking place in late January at the Tawes Theater on the University of Maryland campus. Pete called me from L.A. asking where in DC he could get an evening gig for the weekend. "I'll bring Louie Bellson with me," he added. I could hardly believe what I heard.
Pete repeated, "Louie Bellson," explaining, "We're old friends and we play together often." I suggested he try the One Step Down, 10 blocks from the White House. In addition to Louie, Pete added Steve Novosel on bass and Reuben Brown on piano. I wrote a preview piece for the Post (published January 23). I was also sent by the Post to review on Friday and I arrived several numbers into the first set. Patrons were already lining up in the cold for the next show. I forced my way through the crowd muttering "Washington Post" and made it in. I then had to excuse my way through a small throng just inside. There wasn't an empty seat in the house; standees were three deep at the bar. I ended up at the bandstand end of the bar, hanging over it, almost in Bellson's face. He looked up at me, smiled and went into a boiling minute-long solo.
On my way out, anxious to get to a payphone to call in my 200-word review, I introduced myself to Louie. He grabbed my hand and said, "Royal, Pearl and I are very grateful for the nice things you've written about us. Thank you so much." I was dumbfounded, not expecting him to have a clue as to my identity.
I caught up with Louie several more times over the years. In 1990 at the North Sea Jazz Festival, my then seven-year-old son Neale and I chatted with him in the breakfast room of the Bel Air Hotel. That's a nice memory for Neale, now in his mid-20s and drumming with bands in Baltimore and, for the past two years, San Francisco. I also caught Louie a decade ago with his combo at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville, Maryland. Our final contact was a year ago via his wife and manager Francine Bellson, who responded to my email requesting a review copy of Louie and Clark Terry's new CD, Louie & Clark Expedition 2. She emailed me in reply, "How thrilled Louie was to receive your memo; he just bubbled over telling me about the good times you all had in those memorable days."
Bellson’s career history is nothing short of incredible. He played the White House four times, was granted four honorary doctorates, received the prestigious NEA Jazz Masters Award in 1994 and the American Drummers Achievement Award from Zildjian in 1998. A six-time Grammy Award nominee, he performed on more than 200 albums, composed and/or arranged more than a thousand tunes and published a dozen books on drums and percussion. Duke Ellington once said that Louie Bellson was "not only the world's greatest drummer, but also the world's greatest musician!"
For more detailed information on Louie Bellson you can find a profile in my Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000). There were excellent obituaries in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, by our esteemed Nate Chinen and Don Heckman, respectively.
Requiescat in pacem, Louie.
Good photos at:^ Top
W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post's jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently at work on a memoir and his fourth collection of profiles of jazz and blues musicians.