Fall 2007 CJA Network Featured Interview

Louie Bellson

1. What initially attracted and led you to jazz music?

I was born into an Italian-American family of eight siblings, all musicians.  The city of Rock Falls, Illinois has since dedicated a historical monument in front of the birth house and holds an annual 4-day celebration in July which is open to the public.  coordinator@rockfallsdevelopment.org

I started playing drums at age 3.  My father had a music store where he and all us kids worked and taught lessons.  He made sure we knew every aria from every opera.  At the same time, our store would be the first place in town to receive the latest swing (big-band) records as soon as they were released.  Bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman.  So here’s where my attraction to swing/jazz began.

2. How did you develop the incredible level of precision and dynamics in your drumming?  Also, aren't you the inventor of "double bass" kick drums?

I conceived the double-bass drum idea when I was in high school Art class.  My teacher, Mr. Faber gave me an “A” for the design.  But it wasn’t actually manufactured until later. While it is true that I have performed with the “greatest” (Ellington, Basie, etc.), it is also true that I’ve been a student of the “greatest”, too.  Dad taught me the basics, but I also learned from the likes of Joe Jones, Chick Webb, Big Sid Catlett and Gene Krupa.  And one of the responsibilities they all instilled in me about this knowledge was to “pass it on” to future generations. The way I see it, the Lord placed the talent in my body (temple); it’s my job to maintain that body so the talents can be shared for as long as possible.

3. What contributes to your longevity and enjoyment of life?

I’ve been performing professionally for nearly 70 years, both with other bands and with my own big bands and combos.  Sometimes, like with Tommy Dorsey, we’d be on-the-road for 6 months at a time, playing every single day, with not even a Sunday off!  So, needless to say, safeguarding one’s health is crucial. I always ate nutritiously and, being Italian, a little wine with dinner was always a nice touch.  But smoking, hard drinking and drugs were definitely out of the question. 

I advise young people today to work hard, study hard and stay clean if they want to “keep their chops up.”  I also tell them to respect the spiritual values their parents taught them as they set out to find their own way in the world.  In short, I practice what I preach and I’m still performing at 83! As for satisfaction with life, I work hard and enjoy what I do for a living – performing and composing.  I’ve had 2 wives, both dedicated Christians, and I know my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – what more can I want?

4. What’s the story behind your CD, “The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson”? 

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert premiered in 1965 at the consecration of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco with me playing drums.  Duke told me we were going to perform in church.  He said, “It’s based on the first three words of the Bible—‘in the beginning’.  In the beginning, there was lightning and thunder.  That’s you!” During one rehearsal, Ellington, who was also deeply religious, later told me, “You should consider writing a sacred concert of your own.” 

So I’ve been writing The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson since 1969.  In it, I combine the “breaths” (Psalm 150:6) of symphony, big band and choir.  I wanted to compose music dedicated to praising God the creator who motivates our lives through Jesus our savior. Collaborating with my longtime friends and arrangers Jack Hayes and Buddy Baker, this opus premiered at the University of Southern California in March of 2000 using the jazz big band, symphony and choir of the USC Thornton School of Music.

 In 2002, I performed The Sacred Music at Stanford University in Palo Alto and at my church, Emmanuel Baptist in San Jose, California.  The musicians included Emmanuel’s and other local choirs, as well as the big band and strings of Stanford University. Although recorded in 2000, my wife and I were not able to produce the Sacred CD on our Percussion Power label until 2006.  The reviews were exhilarating and I am humbled that it’s been called “a masterpiece” and “a spiritual celebration” by my friends Tony Bennett and Della Reese.  The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson CD is available on www.cdbaby.com/louiebellson and on iTunes.

5. Tell us about your next Jazz CD in the works.

For this project, I joined forces with my old friend, master trumpeter Clark Terry on an album of new big-band music that I composed.  The array of arrangers includes Nat Pierce, Remo Palmier, Jack Hayes, Albert Alva and my recently departed friend, Tommy Newsom. Besides me, the album features drummers Kenny Washington and Sylvia Cuenca.  And on one number, all 3 of us drummers get to take solos on one fanciful tune.  We recorded at the Clinton Studios in New York City in May and the mix/mastering was completed this fall out here in California.  As with the Sacred CD, my wife designed the album and we expect to release it at the end of this year.  Look for it then on www.cdbaby.com/louiebellson and on iTunes.  The title is such a “kick,” we’re keeping it mum until it’s actually released.

6. Louie this is fascinating stuff.... Would you agree to more interviewing at a later time?

By all means, David!  I feel the work you do with the CJA Network is vitally important.  Meanwhile, tell your members about our new website www.louiebellson.info or www.louiebellson.net.