Louie Bellson

Bellson, drums.jpgWhat to add to the hundreds of tributes to Louie Bellson in the wake of his death last weekend? The outpouring of accolades emphasizes what anyone who ever encountered him knows: he was full of warmth, generosity and the largest available portion of human spirit. Dozens of obituaries are quoting Duke Ellington’s assessment of Bellson as not only the world’s greatest drummer but the world’s greatest musician. There are excellent obits by Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, Nate Chinen in The New York Times and Don Heckman in The Los Angeles Times

I have two particularly vivid memories of Bellson. One is from the early 1950s when as a youth I witnessed him during a rare freezing night in Seattle, heating up the old Trianon Ballroom with his drum solos on the Ellington band. In 1969 in the East Room of the White House, Bellson was the drummer and primary arranger for the all-star band Willis Conover assembled for the 70th birthday party that President Richard M. Nixon gave for Ellington. His bandmates were Bill Berry and Clark Terry, trumpets; J.J Johnson and Urbie Green, trombones; Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan, saxophones; Hank Jones, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; and Jim Hall, guitar. There were guest appearances at the piano by Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor and Earl Hines. Joe Williams and Mary Mayo sang. In the notes I wrote for the CD issue of the music from that night, among the highlights I mentioned: 

The grins on the faces of Hinton and Bellson when Earl Hines was in full flight.


This photo I took at the afternoon rehearsal captures only part of Bellson’s face, but as he looks over at Hinton we can see in his eyes the pleasure he is getting from the experience. From left to right: Hinton’s hand on the bass, Bellson, J.J. Johnson (mostly obscured), Mulligan, Desmond, Terry and Berry. I have seen the evening’s music described as a jam session. It was not. Bellson’s arrangements for the unusal 10-piece instrumentation were impeccably conceived to honor Ellington. They promoted feelings of happiness and nostalgia appropriate to the occasion. When the concert ended, Ellington praised Bellson. You should have seen Louie grin then. 
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  1. fernando hernandez says

    I loved Louie Bellson as a human being and as a drummer.I first met him at a drum clinic in 1970 when I was 15.I saw him again at Dantes and he remembered my name!Ileft my address with a band member. A couple of days later I received a beautiful letter from Loiue.recently,I saw him at a clinic at the Remo Factory. He demonstrated different odd meters at the same time with each limb.I gave him a thank you note for all the years. Again within a couple of days he wrote me.He wrote that he was a Christian brother.I know he is in heaven.He was the Fred Astaire of drumming, The most graceful and beautiful drummer, and human being. Thank you Louie!

  2. Alexander Cohen says

    Thanks for the nice remembrances of Louie. I have nothing but sad, grateful, and warm feelings for the memories of Louie: At Concord with Bobby Shew, Dante’s long after dark, and cruises with my wife Tobi meeting the great one.
    His music so wide and fine from his sticks and pen, on vinyl and cds. The easy swing of Melody for Thelma by Blue Mitchell with Louie running the changes and that wonderfully light loving cymbal ride. Bye Louie, thanks for the greatest of pulses and warmest of smiles. Alex in NZ

  3. Paul Scates says

    I am so fortunate to have seen Louie and his band play at Carmello’s in Sherman Oaks in June
    of 1981. The place was packed and crammed with
    drummers who were virtually a Who’s Who in L.A.
    I stood and watched Louie’s virtuosity and energy alongside the great Jake Hanna. Harvey Mason was there as well as Irv Cottler and Murray Spivak. Louie recognized all these gentlemen as his peers and friends. It was a night I’ll never forget. Louie transcended music and drumming. I grew up like others watching him on Johnny Carson. His energy and
    his enthusiasm inspired so many. He was also a
    testament to clean living and goodness to your
    fellow man. He was simply the very best.

  4. Dick McGarvin says

    Louie Bellson was, maybe, my first drum idol. Sure, I loved Gene Krupa, but the fact that Louie could write music, in addition to being an astonishing drummer, was what impressed me. I remember the first time I heard SKIN DEEP by the Ellington band, I listened in wide-eyed amazement! And then to learn that Louie was also the composer and arranger of the piece, well that just knocked me out. He was a real inspiration.

  5. Ken Randazzo says

    I first watched Mr. Louie Bellson play with his Big Band at Shoreline in Mt View. Simply the most talented drummer I have ever watched. I have seen many drummers including the great Budy Rich. A Musical Genius with the drums Mr. Bellson was. I never herd such wonderful music from the drums before. I then saw Mr. Bellson again at a small club in Santa Cruz called the Kuwamba Club. I got there plenty early and sat front row and dead center of Mr Bellsons drum set. What a treat it was, I was in heaven. Then I got a chance to meet and talk with Mr Bellson for about five minutes. This wonderful man was a sweetheart, He left a great impression on me forever! Thank you Mr. Louie Bellson for being a wonderful Man and simply the best drummer that ever lived.
    God Bless You Mr. Louie Bellson