Louie Bellson


Hall Of Fame: 1985

One thing never changes—Louie Bellson’s constant desire to change. When I interviewed Louie for MD five years ago, that fact struck me. When we got together recently, that aspect remained most blatant. His open mind and continual quest to keep abreast of the times have certainly made him one of the foremost drummers in the world today. Let’s face it: Here is a man who could very easily have rested on any one of his laurels. He began playing with Ted FioRito, and he replaced Gene Krupa in Benny Goodman’s band by the time he was 17 years old. He continued to play for such legends as Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and Duke Ellington, after which he began his own successful band.

While change has been at the crux of his musical orientation, one thing that hasn’t changed is Louie himself. He has always been a kind, generous man. It seems that most drummers have a story about how Louie encouraged them at one time or another. And let’s not forget the thousands of musicians he speaks to every year at his many clinics. Of course, that’s not completely unselfish, for that ties into his never-ending desire to keep his finger on the musical pulse. As he told me in 1980, “The kids keep me up. I get a chance to listen to them, and while I’m able to pass something off to them, they, in turn, give me something, so it keeps me on my toes and my eyes and ears open to new things.”

RF: In our Modern Drummer interview in 1980, you made the statement that it’s up to the individual to keep up with the times. What have you done to do that?

LB: I’ve always been a player who kept my eyes and ears open, and I’ve expected all my students and people at my clinics to do the same. I can remember the time that some of the players during my era, who are still good players, shut themselves off from some of the new rhythms that were happening. It was a big mistake, because suddenly, they found themselves behind the eight ball, so to speak. You can’t do that. Some of those young kids out there are really doing some fantastic things.

RF: Do you feel that it is as necessary for drummers today to study as intensely as you studied when you were young?

LB: I think so, because the level of drumming is much higher than it was when I was a kid. Okay, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Oh Lou, there are no more drummers like you, Buddy, and Jo Jones,” but I disagree with that. There are. The one advantage that we had growing up was that, when we got to be 18 and 19 years old, we could go on the road. We had a pick of 25 or 30 bands on the road that we could play with before we got to a Benny Goodman or a Basie. Today, if you’re not going to play something in the schools or in a concert hall, that’s it. There are no more theaters because of television. Of course, I’m not knocking television, but we had more of an opportunity. Today, there are so many youngsters who have not made their mark on records, or who you haven’t seen on television. They haven’t had their chance yet, but I’ve heard some youngsters out there who are just superb. They’ve got the tools. All they need is the chance to go on the road and get that experience. The level of drumming today is so much higher because we’re not just playing jazz now. The drummer of today has to be like Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, and Vinnie Colaiuta. These guys can play country & western, rock, or straight-down-the-middle good jazz. There are so many categories today that we didn’t have to deal with. Look at what Steve Gadd has to do when he goes into a record date. That’s why I call those guys magicians. They have to listen to a melody and come up with a new, original beat or something that will fit.

Recently, I was with a guy who did two, one-hour videotapes of Buddy Rich. I watched the video very closely and I looked at Buddy, who has been a dear friend for 40 years, who is about 67, and who is still wailing his buns off and still has that great sound. He was playing some rock things, bossa novas, ballads, and swing things. We came from the same school. We had respect, first of all, for our craft. Buddy and I look at a drumset, and that’s our tool. We respect that. A lot of people think he’s kind of hard when he gets on the bandstand, but he isn’t. He’s a great natural player, and all he wants is for everybody in the band to do what he does when he gets on that bandstand: play over 100%. That’s why he always has a good band. I think that, if you have tremendous respect for your instrument and treat it accordingly, then everything you do has to be good. If you don’t have respect for drums and music, you should get out of the business. On that tape, even if it was a ballad where he picked up the brushes, every beat meant something to Buddy. I could feel it.

What a great lesson it is to watch a player like Buddy, Peter Erskine, Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, or Lenny White. Everything these guys do is a religion. Once the young people can grab hold of that kind of idea, that’s a big factor. That’s all I did. I lived and breathed music, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. Consequently, the long hours of practice I put in paid off. It’s like my wife. People said, “How can she go to school at this point and learn?” I said, “Because she likes education and wants to learn.’’ If you want to do something and have respect for it, you’ll find time to do it. That’s why I don’t buy the idea of the youngster who comes up to me and says, “I’d like to do this, but see, I don’t have time.” If you want to play drums and be a good player, you’ll find the time to do it. If you want to make excuses, then forget it.

I was 17 years old when I joined Benny Goodman, and he wounded me. When I say he wounded me, I mean that he didn’t consider the fact that I was 17 years old. All he considered was that I was a member of Benny Goodman’s band. The way he wounded me was by putting charts in front of me and testing me to find out what kind of a player I was. I took everything he gave me, played it and said, “You make me bleed, but I’m going to heal and show you what I can do.” In a matter of two or three weeks, I healed and became a member of that band. That’s what you have to do. After you hear someone like Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, or Peter Erskine, don’t take the attitude of, “Oh man, I give up.” They should be an incentive. I judge a lot of competitions, and I could tell you ten bands right now that could go out and play my book, Buddy’s book, or Woody’s book—no problem. The only problem is that, when they graduate, where do they go? That doesn’t mean that I’m saying to give up. As a young player, I didn’t think about being a star, so to speak. I just concentrated on learning to play my instrument, and getting better and better. I felt that, if I played really good, maybe someday I’d be noticed and someone would give me a break.

RF: Do you feel that it’s necessary for someone coming up today to listen to the drummers you listened to?

LB: That’s also important. That’s one of the things about Europe and London. People in the theater are taught not to lose sight of where it started. They still pay respects to Sir Lawrence Olivier. In our case, as drummers, we should know about Baby Dodds, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Chick Webb—the pioneers. Without those drummers, all of us would be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.

RF: It’s almost harder for a kid today, because there are so many influences to be aware of.

LB: Yes, but I think that, once you know who Baby Dodds was and listen to some of the records, you can say, “Oh wow, I hear shades of Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Jo Jones.” Once you realize that, you can relate to the new players, too. It’s a form of education. I learned a long time ago that the more educated you are in whatever field you’re in, the smarter you’re going to be and the more you’ll have going for you. That’s why the players today are so much better. Look at Peter Erskine. He’s very educated and he knows a lot of things, so he can sit down and play with anybody.

I recently listened to a cut on one of Weather Report’s latest albums that my daughter, Dee Dee, sang backup on. While I was listening to this, I was noticing that Weather Report played a few licks that I used to hear Charlie Parker play. Here it is 20 years later. We’ll always go on with new things, but that kind of validity will always live.

RF: But, to play devil’s advocate, wasn’t what you did almost more creative? You didn’t have that many people to “steal” from.

LB: That’s true. We had to go out and do it ourselves. We had more of a fight to handle than the kids today. We didn’t have that many books or that many teachers. But in a way, that’s good, too, because that makes you use the full energies that God gave you. You don’t just settle for half of it. You use everything from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. You learn how to use everything and take advantage of it.

RF: I hear so many players say that they love to play jazz, but there’s just no money to be made in that field.

LB: I had a few students about ten years ago with that same problem, and it is a problem. One said, “I’m a jazz player and I have to play in this rock group.” So I went with this young drummer one night to hear the group. It was a darn good rock group. I told him, “This is wonderful, because first of all, if you get a chance to play drums at least four times a week, at least you’re touching your instrument. Whatever you do, try to make the best of it.” If it’s an old, funky, country & western group, try to make that sound as good as possible. You are playing! This guy not only became a good jazz player, but a good rock ’n’ roll player. I call that complete drumming.

RF: You were mentioning the love of the drumset itself. How have you changed through the years as far as equipment goes?

LB: I’ll go a few steps back. I’m one of those players who likes changes. Changes are very important, and there will always be changes. I learned that from Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Basie. I saw Ellington sit down, listen to an old country & western group, and say, “Wow, those are good musicians.” That’s why those guys were so great. They always opened up and considered music, music.

I can look back on the strides I’ve made in the last ten years, and I’m very happy that I didn’t stay with the same kind of drumset. I made changes in my cymbal setup and in my drumset. Probably in the next five years, there will be some other changes. I think that’s important because of the tonal colors we’re making with our music. Buddy Rich made a statement a long time ago in Modern Drummer, and he’s right. He said that it’s important for every drummer to have the basic tools. If you can’t play with just one bass drum, snare drum, small tom-tom, big tom-tom, a couple of cymbals, and hi-hats, you’ve got to go back and do your homework. That’s true, but what happens if you join Chick Corea? It means that you may have to augment that basic set with little concert toms, maybe a triangle, and a RotoTom. With all the percussive sounds Chick demands, tonal colors have to be added to that basic set. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m relating my drumset to the kind of music I’m going to be playing with my band. That’s important.

RF: How is that changing?

LB: We’re still what we call a hard-swinging jazz band, but we’re into a lot of Latin things, and Latin-rock things. So in that respect, I need different tonal colors.

RF: Do you ever just add equipment to give yourself new creative ideas?

LB: Oh yeah. But there again, I always go by what I’m doing musically. If musically I hear something, then I want to put that in. I think what young drummers are doing with their sets is wonderful, because now when they go to do drum solos, they’ve got a wide variety of sounds to use. I had the Concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic walk up to me one day and say, “Do you realize that you have your own symphony orchestra? Look at your drumset. You’ve got a bass, your tenors are your big tom-toms, you’ve got the alto with your small tom-toms, your snare drum is a soprano, and you have a multitude of high and low pitches in metal sounds.” Now, I treat my drumset as a symphony orchestra, and I explain that in my clinics.

RF: How do you feel about the electronic technology that is taking over?

LB: I’ve always been an advocator of the electronic field. I respect Mel Lewis as one of our giants and great players, and he has a right to his opinion on the electronics. A lot of the things he said are true, in his light, but I’m one of those people who never put down anything that’s new until they really know what it’s like and give it time to blossom. I feel that we’re still in the infancy stage of the electronic drum field, but I’ve heard some things so far that are good. If used properly and in their place, electronic drums can be very effective. I think the overuse of something is no good. For example, if you get a set of Simmons and abuse them, that’s no good. You can abuse a drumset too, though, as far as that goes. But I’ve heard some drummers like Bill Bruford and Harvey Mason play that instrument and really get something out of it.

RF: Again, you’re talking about it being right for the kind of music you play. That’s something you might not add to your set.

LB: Exactly. But if, in the next five years, I see that I’m going to be able to use some- thing electronic that will be right for my band’s music, why not? Look at the strides they’ve made with the DX7. In one respect, a lot of people out here say, “Yeah, you can take two or three of those and make a whole movie score. But what happens to 45 musicians who are out of work?” I can see that, but I can also see the value of using that instrument with the 45 players.

I’m interested in seeing all these new things happening. I can’t sit down and say, “This is the drumset I’m going to be using for the next 25 years, and this is the music I’m going to play.” No way. To me that would be dull. I like the excitement of knowing that every day I might hear something new and exciting. That’s the exciting thing about drumming.

RF: I’m curious about some of the musical changes you’ve witnessed. When swing came in, did you feel that it was here to stay?

LB: Yes, because I felt the strong validity and honesty of what jazz represented. When I heard that music and those bands, there was no doubt in my mind that that music would be around for a long time, and that music was going to be a stepping stone for something else. You can’t ever say, though, that we’re going to stay put here, and this is going to be it. Every night on the bandstand, Duke Ellington would come with eight bars of music, and we would play that somewhere in the medley, so Duke could hear the voicings. If it worked right and he heard what he wanted to hear, he would continue that eight bars and make a whole piece out of it. Just dig that: Here’s a guy who brought something to the bandstand every night, which meant he was always writing notes and realizing different voicings. Having worked with people like that, I feel the same way. I’m always thinking about what kind of a vehicle I can have for the players in my band. I think that’s one of the things that a lot of players did in the past. Today, it’s happening even more because we have more music to listen to. I can remember the time when there were just three record companies. Now, I can’t even count them. If I wanted to sit down and listen to every record album that was made in the last three months, I’d have to sit here for at least a month. I do try to sit down at least once every two weeks for at least six hours. I want to listen to some of the new rock groups, some of the new jazz groups, new symphony orchestras—new music.

RF: So how do you know that something isn’t just a fad?

LB: I can listen to, say, a heavy metal band and I can say, “Okay, that’s really loud, but there are some good players. I can hear the changes they are playing, and they have some musical validity.” I can hear another metal band that is only playing a lot of noise. They’re playing two or three chords. I don’t know what they’re singing or what they’re doing, but it’s more visual than musical. I asked several kids how a concert was, and their reaction was, “Wow, did you see the pants that guy was wearing? And the laser beams? The stage? The lights?” I said, “Yeah, but what else?” Not once did they say what happened musically. The visual is important, but what about what went on musically? What did the drummer do that was musical and good? What did the band and the singer do? When I hear of groups like that who are just strictly visual and not musical, then I have to say, “That’s not going to last too long.” I’ve gotten to where I’m right about nine times out of ten. The groups I didn’t think would make it never did. However, I’ve been fooled a couple of times. There was a wonderful group around here called Seawind. That, to me, was one of the finest groups. They were superb in every department. I thought they were going to make it, but they never did. I don’t know why.

RF: How did you feel when rock came into the picture so strongly about 20 years ago?

LB: There were a lot of musicians from my era who said, “Hey man, that’s junk.” I am blessed that my father and people like Duke Ellington taught me one very basic thing about music: Don’t ever put anything down unless you know what it is. Hear it out, first. I’ve seen people fall asleep at a beautiful opera, and then say, “That’s junk.” They just don’t know what opera is. When rock came in, I heard some groups that were really lousy, but I heard some groups that were good. The same thing happened when I was young. I heard a jazz group that was really lousy, but then I heard Jo Jones with Basie’s band. They were cooking! The further I checked into it, the more I realized that we were getting into some music that was going to be with us.

RF: Did you then try to incorporate some of that music into your playing?

LB: Absolutely. I got into some of the early books that were being written, I watched some of the drummers, and I listened. I realized the difference between the jazz feel, which is the rolling triplet feel, and the rock feel, which was getting into a strict 8th-note feel—an adaptation of the Latin feel. I also realized that a lot of those youngsters were getting back into the old, funky, blues/rock. Look at Bernard Purdie. He became one of the best rock players, but he is basically an old, funky, blues player. The things he did with Aretha Franklin and even beyond that point were incredible. That’s a drummer who kept his eyes and ears open. The musicians who closed their ears to this had to stay with what they were doing, and that’s it. I think that they lost something. Even a guy like Mel Lewis can play rock. He didn’t shut his ears or eyes to the new kind of music. But he and Buddy Rich took the good parts of it and used it. Look at Buddy. He plays sambas, rock things, and bossa novas, which we didn’t do in the early jazz bands.

RF: Has the emphasis in your clinics had to alter any in the last several years, or is it still the same?

LB: Oh no, my clinics are very different. I remember the time when I would start my clinics just on the snare drum and talk about rudiments. Then I would have a few sight-reading books and play from those before I got to the drumset. Then I changed that. I started the clinics by playing a long drum solo, and then I would say, ’ ’The reason I did that was not just to show you my technique. I just want to point out that solos are secondary. If you are a great drum soloist, that’s good, but let’s see what you can do with a band. That’s the important thing. Let’s see if you can be a Mel Lewis, a Peter Erskine, or a Billy Cobham. If you have the solo ability on top of that, that makes you that much better a player. But if you’re a great soloist and you can’t function in the band, then you’re putting the cart before the horse.” All that technique doesn’t mean anything if you can’t swing. When I say swing, I mean swinging a rock group or a jazz band or whatever.

Now, I’m using even a different approach. Sometimes I won’t play the solo at the beginning. I will have a rhythm section or a small band, or sometimes I’ll use my big band to play a couple of numbers first. Then I get into the basics. I say, “Okay, I’ve played three tunes with a band. Let’s analyze what I did with that swing tune, that rock tune, and that ballad. Let’s pick apart the things I did and why I did them.” Now they’ve had a chance to hear not only the drums, but the drums pertaining to the music. I had to make that point stronger. I didn’t want them coming just to hear me as a bombastic soloist.

The reason I have to—as well as want to—listen to new music is because a youngster will say to me, “What did Steve Gadd do on ’Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’?” As a clinician, you should really be aware of some of those things. I’ve gone to hear Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, Billy Cobham, and Tony Williams. Sometimes you can hear the record but you don’t know exactly what they did. Maybe they did it with the left hand or maybe they did it with the right hand. Finding out makes you a better clinician.

Up until about seven or eight years ago, all the drummers who came to my clinics could play rock things, but they could not swing. The best solution I found was to say, “You had to have a starting point. How did you learn to play the rock things?” The drummer would say, “I listened to records and I went to hear the bands play.” So I’d say, “Okay, if you want to learn how to swing, get some Basie, Ellington, Buddy Rich, and Woody Herman albums, and do the same thing there. Listen to that separation of feel. Now you’re going to go with the rolling triplet feel instead of the strict 8th-note feel. Watch some of those players, and then you’ll be a Steve Gadd.”

RF: You never slow down. Do you ever worry about that?

LB: I’m blessed to be doing something I love. I always think of the guy who has the lunch pail and waits for the bus on the corner. He has to go to the factory and work eight hours doing something he might not want to do. But look at me. My lunch pail is full of drumsticks, and my job is going on the bandstand and working at something I love to do, so it’s not work to me. I count my blessings every day. God has given me the talent to write music and play drums. I have my own band, and I’m having fun. If it were all to end for me tomorrow, I would have had a chance to play with Duke, Basie, and all these great people. For me, it’s as natural as breathing in and out. I get up, start composing, and play my drums. To me, it’s just like sitting down to a good meal. I’m having a ball just talking to you about something I enjoy. It’s beautiful. Maybe the last thing I will do is hit a rimshot or a cymbal, and I’ll go out that way. But at least I’ll go out swinging.