I've always loved Louie Bellson's drumming. It's crisp and aggressive—without being noisy or over the top. To my ear, Bellson's sound is thunderous and seductive—a graceful, rolling invitation rather than a sharp military call to arms. To quote Count Basie on Bellson: "He plays so clean, till it sounds to me like he is reading it out of a book. And he can swing."
I spoke with Louie on Thursday by phone about his early band years—from 1941 to 1962—and he shared stories about Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
This is my favorite period of Bellson's. He had the startling good fortune to play with the most challenging orchestras of the period —leapfrogging from band to band as the genre wound down and competition for seats in those top ensembles heated up among the nation's top sidemen.
While Bellson isn't as well known a name today as Buddy Rich, that's probably due more to Buddy's tireless knack for self-promotion and rough-guy intensity. Bellson was a bit more laid back but just as intense and popular, especially among jazz greats. He was a lot less angry and combative than Buddy, that's for sure, yet they remained close friends through the decades. That's a testament to Bellson's warm, magical personality.
But from a critical perspective, the big difference for me between the two drumming giants is that Bellson had taste and Buddy didn't. That's not a knock on Buddy. It's just that Buddy often sounded ferociously mechanical, as if it were his last day on earth. While that style can sound exciting at first, I've always found that it gets old fast and exhausts the ear. Buddy left little air or room for the listener.
Bellson, by contrast, always is doing something interesting and subtle with the drums, whether sitting behind bands or a group. Bellson's genius was and is his driving beat—his signature was using two bass drums at once—and the delightful messages he delivered with sticks or brushes on the skins, cymbals and hi-hat.
But let's get back to those bands. Bellson cut his teeth playing with the best of them and at their musical peak—after World War II. This isn't an overstatement. While the bands were indeed dying after the war, the best ones remained and got better.
Bellson's on drums in Benny Goodman's bands of 1942 (at age 18) and 1946 (the Magic Carpet band); he's behind Tommy Dorsey's stunning post-war orchestra of 1947-49 featuring the breakthrough arrangements of Bill Finegan; he then jumps to Harry James' bop band of 1949 (yep, James could bop, and this was his best band, with the breakneck Neal Hefti charts); Bellson leaves for Duke Ellington in the early 1950s (a who's who of sidemen); and then Bellson travels to Sweden in 1962 with Basie's Second Testament band, which recorded a killer live album over there for Roulette.
After Basie, Bellson went on to lead groups and play with every jazz legend, recording more than 200 albums and composing more than 1,000 songs. In 2006, Bellson released The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson, an ambitious Ellington-inspired choral and band work recorded in 2000. (It's available here). A new CD with Clark Terry and Kenny Washington is due soon.
When I spoke with Louie on Thursday we focused on his early band years:
"My father owned a music store when I was growing up in Rock Falls, Illinois. He could play all the instruments, which you had to do when you owned a music store back then. One day, when I was three years old, he took me to a parade. When the drums passed by, I got so excited I told him wanted to learn to play them.
By high school, I was crazy about the drums. I was using a drum kit with two bass drums—one for my left foot and one for my right, which no one was doing at the time.
In 1941, when I was 17 years old, I entered the Singerland National Gene Krupa Drum Contest along with 40,000 other young drummers. After several rounds, at the finals in New York, Gene picked me as the winner. I was knocked out. When Gene gave me the award, he said, “You have a brilliant career ahead of you.” Later, whenever I’d run into him, Gene would say, “See, I told you that you had a big career ahead of you.” Funny guy.
My first big break was with the Ted Fio Rito band. Fio Rito had a bunch of record hits in the 1930s and did a lot of radio work back then. When he came to my home town in early 1942, I sat in with the band. Ted liked me and offered me a job.
But I had three months left of high school and my parents wouldn’t let me leave. Ted said to call him when I finished and he’d give me a job. I thought he was just talking, but after I graduated, I called Ted and he paid for me to come out to California to join the band.
My first paying job for the Fio Rito band was at the Florentine Gardens club in Los Angeles. I remember we shared the bill with the Mills Brothers and I got to hear them every night, which was great. Man, they sounded even better live than on record.
I soon joined Benny’s band in 1942 and again in 1946, after the war. Benny always knew what he wanted to hear and got the band to deliver. I never had any problems with him. I did what he wanted me to do.
Benny was a master at rehearsing. He would rehearse each section of the band individually. First he’d rehearse the saxes. Then the trombones. Then the trumpets. Then he’d rehearse two sections together. It went on for hours—and without the bass, drums or piano.
Benny wanted the sections playing in tempo on their own. He needed them to keep time without relying on the rhythm section. We'd have to sit through the entire rehearsal until Benny would finally add the bass, drums and piano. When he'd rehearse the other sections, he’d look over at us and say, “Now don’t pull a magazine out on me. Listen to what’s going on.”
The sections had to be up on those charts. Otherwise, Benny would give you that ray, that look. The ray was a complete, cold stare. But the ray was often misunderstood by the press. Yeah, Benny would stare when he didn’t like something. But he also had a funny habit of staring while just listening intently to you, to really hear what you were doing. He’d blank out doing that, and many musicians thought it was that ray. It wasn’t.
I remember during a practice session he was staring at me for a long time. I started to wonder what the problem was. Then he snapped out of it, realizing he was staring at me, and smiled. I smiled back.
Tomorrow I'll have Part 2 of my interview with Louie and his reflections on Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
Wax clips: Dig Bellson, age 19, drumming behind Benny Goodman's Minnie's in the Money from The Gang's All Here, directed by Busby Berkeley (1943). Check the "LB" on the drums above the BG. To see all the other Goodman numbers in this film, with Bellson on drums, rent The Gang's All Here. The DVD is available at Netflix.
To hear Bellson behind Goodman playing the music for a delightful 1946 Disney cartoon, go here and listen to All the Cats Join In (1946). And go here for a clip from the 1948 film, A Song Is Born. Bellson is playing drums in the background on Stealin' Apples.