Louie Bellson


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What 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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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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