Sunday, February 22, 2009

Remembering Louis Bellson

The passing, at 84, of Louis Bellson, one of American music's greatest drummers and for years the engine that drove the bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, leaves contemporary jazz without its last ambassador to the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, Roy Haynes, at 83, is still making the musicians in his "Fountain of Youth" band reach for their second, third and fourth winds during any given performance. But Roy is a very different drummer -- and different musician -- than Louis was, a bridge from the swing era to the bop revolution, and a drummer who, in my view, was and remains jazz music's most modern practitioner of the instrument.

Louis, though, was much more than just an innovative and tasteful drummer. He was probably the first drummer in American music to earn the reputation as a "musician" and not just some sort of freak-of-nature (Buddy Rich) or player/showman (Gene Krupa). Rich and Krupa were, of course, superb musicians, as anyone who played with them will attest. Simply because you cannot write music or, in some cases, read charts doesn't mean that you don't possess the ears and sensitivity to make another person's composition as good as it can be. This is what I would call the "Ringo effect." Ringo might not have dazzled anyone with pyrotechnics and "WTF was that?" drum solos. But good luck finding one Beatles song that would have been better had some modern powerhouse athletic drummer played on songs like, "In My Life," "Rain," or "A Day in the Life." Phil Collins once said that none of the guys today would know what to do with a song like, "A Day in the Life." Just try to find a group of historic import in jazz or popular music that has made it to that level with a bad drummer.

Go ahead.

The Beatles weren't the Beatles until they stole Ringo away from Rory Storm. Charlie Watts laid it down so that Mick and Keith could prance and dance. Keith Moon, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson, Jr., Stewart Copeland, just for starters -- imagine the Who, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, James Brown, Motown and the Police with anyone else. You can't.

Of course, the notion that drummers are not musicians is quite common, and not unique to any particular genre of music. Louis was a composer, arranger and bandleader. A great source of his inspiration was the great singer, Pearl Bailey, whom he married in 1952 (they were together until Pearl passed in 1990). Louis left his gig with Duke Ellington to become his wife's musical director. And is there any better testament to one's stature as a musician than this comment from Duke Ellington:

"Not only is Louis the world's greatest drummer . . . . he is the world's greatest musician!"

Louis not only played with power, finesse and panache, he introduced the concept of double-bass drumming into American music. So, yes, when you see these metal drummers knocking back their 32nd note solos or funk drummers incorporating odd-patterns into their bass drum feel, it's not Keith Moon or Carmine Appice who should get the credit for this development. Louis first began playing a drum-kit with two bass drums in 1939, when he was 15 years old.

Above all, Louis Bellson carried the reputation as a gentleman in an industry that isn't known for many of them. Ironically, Buddy Rich, the polar opposite of Louis in personality and style, cited Louis as his favorite drummer and went to him when he needed a proven drummer and bandleader to sub for him when he was ill or recovering from surgery. Until his final days, Louis gave generous amounts of his time to promoting jazz education, reguarly visiting public schools, music colleges and other community organizations to demonstrate drum technique and talk about a life in music. Louis Bellson was a great man and a great musician, and proved, over a professional career that last for 61 years, that nice guys can finish first.

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