Louie Bellson has always been a drummer's drummer. He swings and drives a hard beat but he also has a blast in between.
His work on the bass drums is unrivaled. I say bass drums, with an "s," because Louie pioneered the used of two bass drums—one for each foot. His brush and stick work when combined with these bass drums is intoxicating. The effect is like getting hit with pool balls while being brushed off with a whisk.
Yesterday, my Part 1 interview with Louie from last Thursday centered on his Benny Goodman years. Louie played in Benny's 1942 and 1946 bands, with a bit of Hollywood film work with Benny in 1948—the year of the second American Federation of Musicians' recording ban.
Today's blog will focus on Louie's big band years after Goodman. Louie left Benny in 1947 to play with Tommy Dorsey's riveting post-war band, featuring the Swiss-watch arrangements of Bill Finegan. Said Finegan of the Dorsey days: "Louis Bellson was superb with the band. Everything he played on my charts was right."
Bellson jumped to Harry James's unrivaled bop band in late 1949 (the musicianship in this band may have been even a notch or two higher than Dorsey's). Next he played in Duke Ellington's early 50s "family member" band before recoding as a leader in the mid-to-late 1950s. Then he toured briefly with Count Basie's Second Testament band in 1962—making him the only drummer to play in all of those great orchestras.
While Louie went on to play in a wide range of big and small groups, our focus is 1947-1962. Louie picks up the story where he left off yesterday:
"One day, in 1947, while playing with Benny Goodman, I got a call from Marty Berman, Tommy Dorsey’s baritone saxophone player. ‘Louie,’ he said, ‘Tommy has heard about you. He wants you.’ Benny wasn’t working steadily at the time—maybe one day a week. So I left Benny to join Dorsey’s orchestra.
Now that band was one tough group. First of all, the charts were by Bill Finegan and were written tight. Sections came in and out, and the beats had to be there and sharp. I think the high point for me in that band was Drumology, which I wrote and arranged with Sid Cooper [alto sax]. Wow, it was a real musicians’ band.
During the time I was there, that Dorsey band included Charlie Shavers and Ziggy Elman on trumpets, Marty Berman and Danny Bank on baritone sax, Lou Levy on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar and just a whole crowd of top session guys who could really read.
Tommy had a different personality than Benny. Dorsey rehearsed the whole band at once—for two hours or more at a time. You really learned something in that band. Dorsey taught me to conduct myself as a gentleman on and off the bandstand and to never to be late.
I played in Tommy’s band for three years. Tommy stood by the drums, so I had a chance to watch him play. It was something. Tommy could still play measure after measure without taking a breath. That’s how Sinatra learned to sing like that, while he was in Dorsey’s band in the early 40s.
As soon as I joined Tommy, we did six months of one-nighters without a day off, traveling 500 miles a day on the bus to different gigs. That's how you traveled back then. I learned a lot. We played all the RKO theaters, which meant I played for tap dancers and jugglers who warmed up audiences and needed the beat to be dead on.
By 1949, Tommy’s engagements slowed down. So when I got a call to join Harry James, I took the job. Man, what a band. Willie Smith [alto sax] was in there. So was Juan Tizol [trombone], and Neal Hefti [trumpet] wrote many of the arrangements.
I was good friends with Juan, and whenever we were in New York I would stay at his apartment. Duke [Ellington] was always calling to talk to Juan. In 1951, he called and asked Juan to join his band and to bring Willie Smith and me with him.
So the three of us went to Harry and told him Duke wanted us. By that point, Harry was semi-retired, and the band was playing only once a week. He laughed and let us go—but added, ‘Take me with you.’ That's how great Duke was. Everyone admired him—even the bandleaders.
Duke’s band was different than all the others. It was like a family. The guys had been with him for years. When I joined, the band members treated me like I was their son. When I joined, there was no music to read. There was no drum book. Nothing. Everyone knew the parts by heart.
Fortunately I had been taking a record player and Duke’s records with me on the road for years. I had Duke's parts memorized. But I still had to be on my toes in that band. I had to listen very carefully to what they were playing. I had to get inside the music.
The band was easy to play with. Man, you had Johnny Hodges [alto]; Harry Carney, the master [on baritone], Paul Gonsalves [tenor], Cat Anderson [trumpet]—these guys and all the others had individual styles but blended together beautifully.
Duke took a big risk hiring me. I was the only white musician in his band. During our first 1951 tour, just before we headed south for Birmingham, Alabama, he said ‘We’re going down South so we’re going to make you a Haitian.’ That’s how they described me so we wouldn’t wind up in trouble. I stayed in hotels where they stayed. It was a great time.
Duke’s band was my favorite. First of all, the intensity and the dynamics were overwhelming. In Duke’s band, you play a ballad with Johnny Hodges and his playing would make you cry. I used to pinch myself, the music was so good.
Duke would offer suggestions but that’s it. Not once did he say the drums had to be played the way Sonny Greer played them. He said I want to hear how Louie Bellson plays these songs. Duke gave me a lot of confidence.
I left Duke's band and started many of my own groups in the mid-50s. Then in the summer of 1962, Sonny Payne, Count Basie’s drummer, was in a terrible car accident on the [New] Jersey Turnpike. The Count was about to leave on a tour to Sweden, so he asked me to come.
I went with the band and had the good fortune to record Basie in Sweden for Roulette. That band included Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Frank Wess—just a fabulous band. Sonny Payne rejoined the band shortly after the recording and I returned to the States.
Looking back, I had a great time playing with those bands, and I learned a lot. The work always managed to find me, and I've been blessed to play with some very talented people.
In just a few weeks, on October 4, Louie will appearing as a guest performer with the LA Jazz Orchestra during a showcase of Duke Ellington's film music. Go here for a PDF about the West Coast event.
Wax tracks: Wow, where should I begin. Louie with Dorsey can be found on Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era (BMG). This CD is out of print—but I noticed there are a handful of copies from other sellers at Amazon.com, starting at about $6. Go here and snap it up, fast.
Louie's work with Harry James' bop band is limited to two tracks on There They Go: Harry James and His Orchestra (1948-1949). This is a stunning band album and should be added to any collection. Go here to look it over. But you can hear more Louie with Harry James on Young Man With a Horn, the soundtrack from the 1950 movie, by going here.
Perhaps the best example of Louie on drums behind Duke Ellington's orchestra is Ellington Uptown (Columbia/1951), which can be found here.
Unfortunately Basie in Sweden (Roulette/1962) is no longer in print. But For the First Time (Pablo/1974)—with Louie, Basie and Ray Brown—is available here.
And finally, one of my absolute favorite Louie Bellson albums is Skin Deep, an out-of-print CD that's now available at iTunes for $9.95. It was recorded in 1953 and 1954, with arrangements by Don Redman.
The personnel is a dream band that includes Willie Smith, Wardell Gray, "Sweets" Edison, Conrad Gozzo, Ray Linn, Maynard Ferguson, Tommy Pederson, Barney Kessel and Jimmy Rowles.
With this one download (which is actually two recording sessions combined into one at iTunes), you will hear why Bellson is one of the most textured and versatile jazz drummers of all time—and why so many bands fought to bring him aboard.
And if all of this wasn't enough, Louie's work with Benny in 1942 included the Peggy Lee sessions. Go here to see Benny and Peggy with Louie in the background on Why Don't You Do Right. Watch carefully in the beginning and dig Louie's stick twirls. Considering this was for a film—Stage Door Canteen—with zero room for dropped sticks, that took guts.