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Louie Bellson: Duke Ellington Called Him "The World's Greatest Drummer"

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Louie Bellson, performing at the Olympic Jazz Festival in 1984, was widely respected for his technical skill, refined rhythms and ability to adapt to various genres. “Not only is Louie Bellson the world’s greatest drummer . . . he’s the world’s greatest musician!" Duke Ellington once said of his former bandmate.

Louie Bellson, a jazz drummer and bandleader who combined remarkable instrumental virtuosity with far-ranging compositional skills, has died. He was 84. According to his wife Francine, Bellson died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications of Parkinson's disease following a broken hip in November.

Bellson's long, productive career stretched from his teens -- when, in competition with 40,000 other young players, he won the Slingerland National Gene Krupa drumming contest -- to the tours and seminars he continued until 2008.

Best known as a superlative big band drummer as a result of his work in the 1940s and '50s with Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Duke Ellington and others, Bellson was also an adept small group player. His more than 200 recorded appearances as leader and sideman encompass sessions with Jazz at the Philharmonic, Woody Herman, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, James Brown and dozens of others, including Ellington's Big Four alongside guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Ray Brown.

“What makes Bellson so special," former Times jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in 1991, “is his overall musicianship. A gifted composer and arranger who has written everything from jazz instrumentals to ballets, he can incorporate his role logically instead of banging away without regard to the dynamic or melodic structure of the work in progress."

Bellson often said that he regarded his tenure with Ellington as one of the significant points in his career. Performing with the Orchestra in the early '50s triggered a forward leap in his development as an instrumentalist and his confidence as a composer.

A pair of his best-known big band works, “The Hawk Talks" and “Skin Deep" became popular staples of the Ellington repertoire -- but not without some initial reservations from Bellson.

In a 2006 interview he said he had written “The Hawk Talks" with Harry James in mind. “Harry was called 'The Hawk,' “ Bellson recalled. “But I wrote it when I was with Duke, and it took a lot of coaxing from [trombonist] Juan Tizol to make me bring it to Duke. I told Juan, 'Are you crazy? You want me to bring music in to a place with Duke and Billy Strayhorn? Geniuses like that? No way.' I brought it in anyhow and lo and behold, Duke recorded it right away.

“But it was Duke who taught me how to write. How to be original. How to know what to do with the rhythm section, with the horns." Ellington returned Bellson's high regard, noting “Not only is Louie Bellson the world's greatest drummer . . . he's the world's greatest musician!"

Other artists concurred. Oscar Peterson described Bellson as “the epitome of musical talent. . . . I consider him one of the musical giants of our age."

Bobby Colomby, former drummer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, pointed to Bellson's pioneering work with the difficult technique of employing two bass drums, saying, “Louie had awesome, jaw-dropping technique. And I really don't think he was ever fully appreciated for what an amazing drummer he really was."

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