If the name Louie Bellson is a familiar one, then you'll immediately understand what a loss not just the jazz world but the entire world of music is feeling today with news of the legendary drummer's death this past weekend in Los Angeles at age 84 from complications of Parkinson's disease following a broken hip suffered back in November.
While his career dated all the way back to before World War II, Bellson was still active right up until the time of his injury. Just last year, he released his final recording, Louie & Clark Expedition 2, made with trumpeter Clark Terry, and in October he'd gone back to his hometown of Rock Falls Illinois to perform with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble.
It was in Illinois in the early 1940s that high school senior Bellson (real name Luigi Ballasoni) beat out over 40,000 young hopefuls from across the U.S. to win the National Gene Krupa Contest, named after the then king of Swing Era drummers. Part of what pushed Bellson to the top so quickly was that, in addition to his spectacular talents, he was also an innovator. When he was just 15, Bellson began experimenting with a daring setup that included two bass drums--which is where those not familiar with Louie Bellson's name might begin to understand his place in music history. His visionary approach to his craft has echoed down through multiple generations of percussionists, and not just in jazz, either; his influence on rock could be heard through the work of such notable drummers as the Who's Keith Moon, Cream's Ginger Baker, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Mitch Mitchell, to name but a few.
How good was Louie Bellson? Duke Ellington, whose formidable orchestra Bellson propelled during the 1950s, called him simply "the world's greatest drummer." Considering the source, that was pretty high praise--and once that Bellson continued to earn throughout his remarkable life and career, which from the mid-'50s until her death in 1990 was spent as musical director for his wife, singer Pearl Bailey. Like the proverbial Energizer Bunny, though, Bellson just kept going and going, through thousands of concerts and countless recordings: As he quipped on his 80th birthday in 2005: "I'm not that old; I'm 40 in one leg, and 40 in the other leg."
Here are a few clips of Louie Bellson in action, first starring with the Ellington band in 1950 on his own composition "The Hawk Talks," and then from the '08 show back home in Illinois: