Drivers Seat

By Louie Bellson

Louis Bellson needs no introduction to drummers. Whether he is igniting the great musicians of his own fine big band, propelling the Doc Severinsen band on NBC’s Tonight Show, exchanging rhythmic and melodic ideas with Count Basie, Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner at recording sessions or television tapings, or creating compelling and exotic percussive underscores on motion picture soundtracks, the unique Bellson brilliance is unmistakable and unequalled.Along with all of his musical accomplishments, Louie Bellson is perhaps one of the most highly respected, well liked gentleman in the music business.
Modern Drummer is both honored and delighted to have Louie aboard.First of all, let me say I couldn’t be more delighted with the great advancement being made in the percussion field. Material is great and more of it is coming. Drummers today are required to do it all: to play all styles with the proper feel and stay with the changing times.We stress many important exercises for the percussionist and with good cause, but we must be in tune with our minds and bodies before we start the motion going. A clear head and a positive strong body are the essentials for good playing. In order to perform correctly, it is important that the player set himself in a positive and relaxed mood. 100% of his strength is to be used, but to be used correctly. When the mind and body function as one, we call this perfect coordination. It is vitally important to think an idea and play it at the same moment. Always gain your composure before playing. You must be at complete peace within yourself before you can take on any outside problems. Always think positive, which comes with a lot of practice and patience.

One of the most interesting subjects brought up at my clinics in the past year is breathing. In the past, breathing was always associated with brass and woodwind players, but it is of the utmost importance to drummers also. Drummers are athletes in one form; they have to be coordinated and must have the technique and power to sustain. Many students observe the techniques of correct breathing during my clinics. The subject has been so widespread and popular that it takes up a great deal of time at each clinic. Correct breathing aids in the relaxation of the entire body.

The drummer must also develop an assured personality. He is in the hot seat and is the difference between a band being fair or great. From the delicate pianissimos to the bombastic fortissimos, the drummer must be in complete command.

A few years ago, I asked for some advice from four of the great bandleaders I worked for. I wanted a short statement from each leader that would be helpful to the drummer. Their comments were as follows:

BENNY GOODMAN – “Find the groove for each tune.”
COUNT BASIE – “Listen.”
DUKE ELLINGTON – “Style is the man himself.”
HARRY JAMES – “Be sympathetic to the soloist.”

These are powerful statements. Let’s analyze some of them.

BENNY GOODMAN – “Find the groove for each tune.” Benny took a lot of time to set a tempo because he knew he had to convey the feel in just a two bar count-off. Benny used to say, “Let’s try to find the groove somewhere in the tune if it doesn’t happen at first”. He would rehearse the reeds and brass alone. He felt each section had to play in time and if they couldn’t, the greatest rhythm section in the world wouldn’t be of any help. Benny taught his drummers to swing, not to overplay, and to work as a team member.

COUNT BASIE – “Listen.” This seems like a simple statement, but brother, it is powerful. To listen is to be aware of the rhythm section. The section must always gel perfectly in order to propel the band and the soloist. You must be able to hear all sections of the band and all the soloists at all times. With Basie as a rhythm player, the start of each tune was great because the rhythm section played a chorus or two before the band made its entrance. This allowed the rhythm section to settle into a groove.

DUKE ELLINGTON – “Style is the man himself.” Every great drummer has developed a style. When you can identify a drummer through his touch, sound, and interpretation, you can bet he is a great player. It’s good to listen and learn from other players, but never try to copy another person completely. There is only one Buddy Rich, one Billy Cobham, one Steve Gadd. Each one of these players can do it all, and yet it is relatively easy to identify one from the other.

It is important to understand that we never stop learning. Every day is a new learning experience. Playing music must be a joy. It is work, but happy work. Never make music hard. Have patience and learn to be a great player. Use your inner power, and use 100% of it.