A fella like me bears more labels than DVDs from the blowout bin at Blockbuster, but one to which I have always answered proudly is “jazz fan”. Sure, I listen to everything—rock and rap, classical and pop, blues, folk, country and indigenous musics from more countries than hold portions of the US national debt—and have published hundreds of stories about the stuff, but at the end of the day it is jazz, “America’s classical music”, that remains the dominant influence on my life and work.
Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, aka Louie Bellson (1924-2009) may be best-remembered a) for his groundbreaking interracial marriage to singer Pearl Bailey—Wikipedia notes their having the second-highest total of appearances at the White House—and b) for conceptualizing the double bass drum set up at age 15, setting the stage for men like Keith Moon and Neil Peart. He took it around the world, onto over 200 albums and into concerts and colleges with almost every jazz hall-of-famer to work in his lifetime. He could also handle four drum sticks like a vibraphonist uses his mallets. But for me, he was maybe the most important musician ever.
Looking back, it feels somewhat remarkable that my active relationship to jazz (not counting tag-along trips to the local festivals) only goes back 15 years. I remember the exact day my obsession began: July 27, 1994. Louie Bellson was the third guest on a new show being hosted by Conan O’Brien, who will become the fifth host of The Tonight Show later this year. Bellson, who followed Michael Moore and the late Isaac Hayes, was there promoting Black, Brown and Beige, his recent CD of music dating from his 1950s run with Duke Ellington, whom I had never heard of.. After watching his performance of “Skin Deep” (now buried forever in NBC’s archives), I was hooked.
In the hoary old days predating e-commerce, it took two days of calls to realize that no, I couldn’t just go to the mall and buy it, and two more days to find a store that had any idea what it was or how to find it. A week or two later found me in Avondale, at a Turtles Music inside the shopping complex on St. Johns Avenue, since defunct, looking through the jazz section of a CD store for the first time in my life.
The Bellson disc itself was never a particular favorite; his sound was not well-served by early-stage full-digital recording. Most old-school jazz CDs are digitized from their original analog masters, and while that sometimes wreaks havoc in other areas, most often the bass, the drums generally sound pretty sweet in stereo. However, all music was recorded in mono for the first half of the 20th century, creating a total crapshoot in terms of the arrangement of the instruments around the single microphone, ambient noise and, of course, the generally crappy upkeep of the resulting masters. I had no idea what any of that meant back then, but another ancillary joy of being a jazz fan is that you learn a lot of miscellaneous information along the way.
The bottom line is that Bellson never registered the broader cultural impact of contemporaries such as Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne and Max Roach, but he was crucial in very specific ways. As a college freshman I bought a cheap old no-name snare drum to practice rudiments during idle moments, because there was just so much free time at the University of Florida, right? I went to the lovely Alachua public library in search of drum instruction videos, and the only one they had was a Louie Bellson video from 1981! The word “paradiddle” induces ironic laughter to this day.
The liner notes to Black, Brown and Beige mentioned two other famous big-band drummers named Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich; to my pleasant surprise the store had their epic 1955 record Krupa and Rich, newly reissued on CD. I must have bought and re-bought the thing ten times since, because it’s the auditory equivalent of Behold a Pale Horse—once you lend it out, it’s gone forever. That album introduced names like Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Ben Webster and, most crucially, Dizzy Gillespie. It became my personal Rosetta Stone, and Louie Bellson set that in motion.
Louie Bellson died shortly before what would have been his 85th birthday, a week after the loss of another legend, angel-voiced singer Blossom Dearie (1926-2009). They were both quite old, and their exits from this stage of life was hardly unexpected (it is axiomatic that when working jazz musicians stop taking bookings, death is not far off), but still it makes this fan feel suddenly much older himself. RIP
February 17, 2009