Drummer, Composer, Bandleader, and Double-Bass Pioneer

Last month we talked about the father of modern jazz drumming, Papa Jo Jones. This time we’re featuring one of Papa Jo’s disciples, the great jazz artist and drumset innovator Louie Bellson.
Bellson was the epitome of class as both a drummer and a person. Beyond his incredible technical skills on the drumset, he was a prolific writer, arranger, bandleader, and educator. He was also an innovator of the drumset. Ever wonder who was the first drummer to popularize using two bass drums? It was Louie. And he did this long before rock drummers Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and many others standardized the double-bass setup. There are several videos available on YouTube that showcase Bellson’s nimble footwork. One of the those is a recording of the classic drum feature “Skin Deep,” which is a Bellson composition that originally appeared on the 1952 Duke Ellington album Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown.

Louie’s skills and craftsmanship as a soloist and accompanist were renowned. As an accompanist, he had it all. He was equally at home driving the legendary big bands of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as his own ensembles, or playing a more delicate role as part of the Oscar Peterson Trio with the great Ray Brown on bass. As a soloist, Louie had a keen sense of composition. His solos were very musical. He often tempered his advanced technique with an expert use of dynamics and subtleties before pulling out the stops for a rousing finale.

Louie was affiliated with a number of drum companies over the years. He played Gretsch in the ’50s with Duke Ellington, and then spent time with Rogers, Slingerland, Pearl, and Remo. Louie’s penchant for innovation was present in his kits from each of these different manufacturers. He was heavily involved in research and development at Pearl and at Remo. You can see many of his unique setups in my YouTube audio/slideshow titled “Steve Maxwell Discusses Louie Bellson.” And for the back story on his beautiful twenty-four-carat gold-plated Rogers kit, search for Steve Maxwell Vintage Drums Rogers Louie Bellson Kit.

No discussion of Louie Bellson would be complete without mentioning his wonderful, warm personality. I only got to meet him a couple of times, but he was such a kind person. He was always supportive of other players, and never said a bad word about anyone. He truly loved bringing pleasure to people through his music, and he remained humble through it all.

In closing, I invite you to check out an incredible solo he performed during a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert that took place in London in 1967. (Search YouTube for Louie Bellson Solo 1967.) It’s a fifteen-minute performance that reveals more about Louie’s drumming than we could ever spell out in print. Enjoy, and be sure to pass it along.

Steve Maxwell is the owner of Maxwell Drums and Fork’s Drum Closet and president of Craviotto Drum Company.

by Steve Maxwell