Louie Bellson didn’t just make the drums swing - he made them sing.
Listen closely, and you could hear melody and phrase in the tintinnabulation of fast-flying sticks striking cymbals. All the while, his feet moved like crazy, articulating multiple rhythms on not one but two bass drums - a Bellson signature.
The distinctly lyrical approach of his playing, combined with the hyper-virtuosity of his technique, made Bellson arguably the last of the iconic swing drummers. His long resume included important stints in bands led by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and other deities in the kingdom of swing.
Bellson, 84, who grew up in the Quad Cities region along the Illinois-Iowa border and developed his early career in Chicago, died Saturday, Feb. 14, in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Francine.
“He had the ‘it’ factor - he knew how to do it,” said singer Tony Bennett, speaking from New York. “He was (also) the best person I ever met. He was like an absolute brother to me.”
As for the drummer’s sense of time, Bennett described it in a single word: “perfect.”
Bellson “was an extremely significant figure in jazz,” noted drummer Dana Hall, music director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble.
“He was a master technician,” said Chicago drummer Paul Wertico, who heads the jazz studies department at Roosevelt University.
“He could figure out what was going on around him and play the right thing at the right time - it was all about his radar,” noted the eminent New Orleans drummer John Vidacovich.
At the heart of Bellson’s art was a uniquely dexterous way of addressing the drums, with a keen ear for subtleties of color, tone and attack. Bellson credited this sensitivity to his father, who ran a music store in Moline, Ill.
“You’ve got to make colors, too - I learned that a long time ago,” Bellson said in a 1990 Chicago Tribune interview.
“By the time I was 13, my dad had taught me practically every aria from every Italian opera. My dad believed the same thing as Duke Ellington - there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. It’s all music, whether it’s opera or jazz, and maybe you can hear a little of both in what I play.”
Bellson began his journey in swing early, picking up a pair of sticks at age 3 in Rock Falls, Ill., where he was born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassone, one of eight children.
By age 14, he was playing at the Rendezvous, a Moline dive, and soon after was studying in Chicago with Gene Krupa’s drum teacher, Roy Knapp. Bellson honed his art in Chicago strip clubs and worse.
“The girls liked me, because I could catch all the bumps and grinds, and they appreciated that,” Bellson said in a 1994 Tribune interview. “And I played the circus, which was harder than you might think. You’ve got to have all this stamina to keep going. You’ve to catch the cues, do these fast gallop rhythms - everything.”
After winning the national Slingerland/Krupa drum competition at age 17, Bellson finished high school in Moline, got a job playing for Ted Fio Rito’s dance band in Hollywood and quickly was tapped to join Goodman, in 1943.
“Benny gave me my framework as a musician,” Bellson in a Tribune interview.
After a stint in military service, Bellson rejoined Goodman in 1946, then moved on to Dorsey’s band in 1947. Dorsey was so smitten with the double bass-drums feat that he put Bellson on a motorized platform that turned a full circle, so the audience could watch the master’s feet at work.
But Bellson was much deeper a musician than such a stunt might suggest. In 1949, he quit Dorsey to study composition in California. His analysis of scores by Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky and other classical modernists enabled him to pen works such as “The Hawk Talks” and “Skin Deep,” jazz classics that became integral to the Ellington band repertory after Bellson joined it from 1951 to ‘53.
Bellson met the singer-actress Pearl Bailey in London in 1952, and they married two weeks later.
“If that man looked at me the way he looks at his drums, I’d be delighted,” she once quipped.
Though Bellson worked for decades as his wife’s music director, he enjoyed additional stints with Count Basie (1962) and Ellington (in the mid-1960s for special projects, such as the Sacred Concerts).
The 1990 death of Bailey came as a blow, and he threw himself into music with renewed vigor to cope, he said. He remarried in 1992; won the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award in ‘94; and saw the creation that year of the Louie Bellson Jazz Festival in the Quad Cities (it later was renamed).
His last engagement was in the Quad Cities, in October, during Louie Bellson Heritage Days.
In addition to his wife, Bellson is survived by two daughters, Debra Hughes and Dee Dee; two sisters, Josephine Payne and Mary Selhost; two brothers, Tony and Henry; and two grandsons.
“If I had to stop playing tomorrow,” he said in a Tribune interview, looking up to the heavens, “I’d just say, ‘Thank you, Lord. I got to do it all.’ “