At over 70 years old, drummer Louie Bellson hasn't lost a step. He's still the well-spring of originality, enthusiasm and efficiency that--at the age of 17--beat 40,000 others in Gene Krupa's drumming contest.
Fifteen Minutes caught Bellson's New York-based quintet at New York City's legendary Blue Note on January 28. Bellson, who followed in Krupa's footsteps along with Buddy Rich and Sam Woodyard, revolutionized jazz drumming by becoming a bandleader himself. Bellson also made a habit of taking the reins when playing in small groups.
His quintet--completed by Ted Nash on tenor saxophone, Marv Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorn, Harvie Swartz on string bass and Derek Smith on piano--began its set with a swinging run-through of "Blowin' the Blues Away." In his first solo, Nash seemed to refer to "Satin Doll," a song made famous by Ellington.
Bellson's concentration never broke throughout the tune; his vibrant eyes stared constantly at the drums, pausing once or twice to cue in other members of the group and never looking at the audience until the tune's end. Now and then, an almost childish grin passed over Bellson's face as he whipped up a firestorm of percussive sound.
Nash's own "Waltz for Mia," was next on the program. "Got a minute?" Smith joked--presumably referring to Chopin's work--after Bellson his horn, but Stamm stole the limelight with an incredibly structured and virtuosic set of choruses, passing from faultless lines of eighth notes to sixteenths and back again. Smith's playing placed him somewhere between pianists Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck, although at times he exchanged their characteristic refinement for a little full-blown stomping.
In "The Very Thought of You," a soft ballad featuring Stamm's flugelhorn, Bellson showed his strength in the small group setting. While Stamm blew the tune along effortlessly, Bellson's brushbased accompaniment was quietly creative, varying his articulations and equipment while holding to the same pattern of emphases. Bellson stuck to his inventive style, even though his improvisations were correctly understated. Instead of tapping along with the rhythm, Bellson gave just as much attention to almost inaudible notes as he would to an exposed solo.
Bellson asked the crowded but enrapt audience, packed like sardines into the Blue Note's minuscule table space, to choose the last tune. When a deadlock ensued, Bellson decreed that a hybrid known as "Cherokee-Cottontail" would be played. "This one features our first-chair percussionist," Bellson kidded. The blend of the traditional jazz standard and one of Ellington's most famous melodies held many treasures in store. The quintet began with "Cherokee" and then broke into choruses of "Cottontail." Throughout the second section, Swartz strummed along powerfully with something akin to religious fervor.
In the middle of the piece, Bellson took his most colossal solo of the evening. Never losing sight of the beat, Bellson played cross-handed, on both sides of the cymbals, all over the set, with four sticks--you name it, he did it. The quintet returned to "Cherokee" for a recap, but Nash couldn't resist quoting "Cottontail" one more time before the tune was done.
In all, Bellson adeptly mixed an almost passionate creativity with a firm control of the band. This achievement, no small one in the jazz world, is a direct result of more than 50 years' professional experience playing with some of the biggest names from the swing era and beyond, including the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Woody Herman.
Still invigorated after an hour-long set, Bellson reflected happily on his beginnings. Early in his career, Bellson became famous not only for his drum chops, but for his unique instrumental setup. First used 1946, Bellson's original design involved a two-bass-drum drum-set. "I designed the set when I was drawing in art class," Bellson recalled, "But it took a long time to get it made." When completed, the drum-set impressed such jazz luminaries as Duke Ellington, who "gave [it] a lot of coverage," according to Bellson.
Bellson's drum-set was only the first of many brushes with percussive innovation. Swing bandleader Tommy Dorsey created a revolving platform for Bellson so that audiences could see the action from the drummer's point of view. Bellson went on to dazzle audiences with an awesome technical dexterity, making the highlight of many concerts his virtuosic solos.
Despite his potentially flashy skills, Bellson made a career of stellar performances with top-notch jazz musicians. After a stint with the Harry James Band, he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Juan Tizol, the trombonist who wrote the famous song "Caravan," was also playing for James but was talking to Ellington about joining the Duke's band. Tizol told him about Bellson and Willie Smith, an alto saxophone player who eventually replaced the incomparable Johnny Hodges in Ellington's group. When Tizol, Smith and Bellson told James of their decision to leave, Bellson remembers, James only responded, "Take me with you!"
Ellington, who for Bellson represented "the perfect bandleader," showed off the drummer in such memorable tunes as "Skin Deep." A seven-minute recording of that piece features more than three minutes of continuous drum solos, both bass drums pounding at top speed. Playing swing, jazz, orchestral and even sacred music for Ellington meant "always an element of surprise," commented Bellson, "It's an experience that you'll never forget."
When it came time to lead his own band, Bellson went on to follow in the Duke's footsteps; he has continued to do so. "I try to do what Ellington did," he confesses, adding "If I get an idea to write a solo vehicle for someone in the band, I write a solo vehicle." The groups with which Bellson has played all over the country feature many up-and-coming musicians; he has often played with youth orchestras and colleges, and he even expressed interest in coming to Harvard sometime the next year. Bellson says his involvement with young musicians resulted from a strong belief in the value of education for musicians.
As he has developed as an artist, Bellson has expanded his roster of roles as bandleader and small group player to include a now constant occupation as composer. In his earlier years, groups led by Harry James, Count Basic and Duke Ellington performed his work. Recently, he has added classical premieres to his list of achievements. When asked about his influences, Bellson said, "I listen to everybody...to find what's current, what's going on." As recent musical inspirations, Bellson cited funk, swing and Jamaican music.
Bellson's performance and post-show remarks suggested that his musical career has been a result of equal parts discipline, intelligence and imagination. Just as he balanced his musical personality against that of his quintet throughout the set, he consistently combined technical wizardry with intense musicality, as he has done throughout his professional experience. This unique musical mix made it an evening to remember.