top of page

Exploring Music: : Louie Bellson Gershwin --Ellington

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

Spencer Bennett


not yet released.png

The entire jazz world mourned when Buddy Rich died earlier this year, thereby creating a vacuum, not only in the jazz drummer category in particular, but also in the genre of big band sound in general. Buddy's band, like his drumming, was elec­tric and driving. Often called the "human drum machine," Rich and his band could build such straight-forward excitement in the intensity of rhythm and tempo that they left audiences breathless and ex­hausted at the end of concerts. To hear Rich in action was to participate in an event; passive listening was impossible.

There are other great drummers who can boast of long years of road experience with the best of jazz composers and orchestras. Louis Bellson is one of these. Bellson has played with everyone from Benny Good­man to Duke Ellington. He was an impor­tant influence on the Ellington orchestra in the years from 1950-52, as he introduc­ed a style of drumming that provided tex­tural color to a band already headed in that direction but as yet lacking a rhythm sec­tion that could implement the tonal con­trasts heard in the other sections.

And this, I think, is the difference bet­ween Bellson and Rich. Buddy Rich con­ceived of his role primarily as the person who moved the rest of the band to the very edge of its abilities to both play on top of high speed tempos and shape its solos as rhythmatic gestures rather than as textural statements. Bellson is much more in­terested in shades and depths, in the chiaroscuro possibilities of both large and small groups. Some of this may be due to his infatuation with the bass drum at an ear­ly age. He has become famous for incor­porating twin bass drums into his playing, not for punctuation, but as components for shifting notation and line.

Another factor is his vast experience with small groups, where the drummer must supply more than beat: he must set mood as well as pace to compensate for the lack of fullness and richness that is more easily accomplished with a big band. It is no accident that Bellson's marriage to Pearl Bailey has been a happy union of more than 30 years. Her presence in his life has rein­forced a tendency toward subtlety, all too rare in drummers, but absolutely necessary for a singer working with a small group.

In any case, the Society has commission­ed a splendid recording with Bellson at the helm. If you enjoyed the precision of the Goodman release Let's Dance (MHC 9412YMHS 7412X--his last record), you owe it to yourself to get this one for com­parison. This is a band put together by a drummer and it sounds like one. It has the feel of Count Basie but a pulsating push more like that of Stan Kenton, because Bellson gives a lot of head room to his brass and sax players.

And even though this is a house band for which a lot of New York musicians were handpicked, the arrangements are still complicated and full of contrasts; "Fascinating Rhythm" is full of key shifts and at one point slips into 3/4 time. Bellson has included a lot of his work with his sex­tet as well. The contrast between the muted Harry "Sweets" Edison character of trumpeter Glenn Drewes and the Ben Websterish playing of Ted Nash's tenor sax creates a beautiful tribute to the '50s when this kind of playing was in full flush.

Incidentally, the liner notes on this recording are by Leonard Feather, noted jazz critic. They are superb and are com­plemented by a fine biography of Bellson. This is a tasteful production worthy of the Society.

Review from page 1 Featured Section Gershwin--Ellington

bottom of page