Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, best known by his stage name, Louie Bellson, was born on July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Illinois. His parents were Italian immigrants, and like many immigrants, the Balassoni last name was constantly being mispronounced, so Louie's father shortened it to Bellson.
Bellson's father, also a gifted musician, played numerous instruments and opened his own music store in Moline, IL soon after arriving in the United States. It's no surprise to find that Louie's three brothers and four sisters all received musical training, learning to play many string, brass and woodwind instruments.
It was at the age of three, during a parade, that Louie Bellson first expressed his interested with the drums. Pointing at the thundering drums as they passed by, Louie stated "I want to play that!" Soon after Louie's father started him out on drums.
By the age of 12, Louie was teaching all instruments, not just the drums, at his father's music store. One year later, at 13-years-old, he began to study conducting with his father, and became well-versed in all of the classics, including numerous arias from all of the major operas.
Desiring to take his drumming to next level, at the age of 15, Louie began studying privately with legendary educator, Roy Knapp, in Chicago, IL, with whom Gene Krupa had also studied with. It was at this same time that Louie, having a strong aptitude for art, came up with the concept of using two bass drums within a drumkit. The sketch of his new "invention" became his drawing project for the year, for which he received an "A" grade. Interesting enough, the Gretsch Drum Company eventually took on Bellson's concept, creating the very first double-bass drum kit.
It was 1941, just two years later at the age of 17, that Bellson's career took a sudden leap forward. Louie took first place, out of 40,000 contestants, in the Gene Krupa-Slingerland Drum Contest, and subsequently landed his first professional gig with a major band Fio Rito.
After serving in the military, Louie worked with the big bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James.
From the start, Bellson was able to construct fascinating solos, making use of his trademark double bass drum set-up, that could hold one's interest for as long as 15 minutes, yet he also enjoyed playing quietly with combos.
Performing regularly with Duke Ellington during 1951-1953 made Bellson world-famous and he also gained good reviews for his writing, which included "Skin Deep" and "The Hawk Talks." After marrying Pearl Bailey, he left Ellington to work as his wife's musical director but he also performed in many different settings, including with Jazz At The Philharmonic, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Count Basie, and special projects with Ellington. In addition Bellson led his own big band and small groups, recording regularly as a leader.
Since the 1960s, Bellson has been involved in educational work, teaching young musicians his dynamic drumming technique. In the 1970s and 1980s, he could frequently be found on recordings from impresario Norman Granz's Pablo label, as well as the Concord label. He has published many of his scores, including his jazz ballet The Marriage Vows. For more than thirty years he has led big bands internationally, and continued to tour, often with a quintet.
Bellson has performed on more than 200 albums with such greats as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Wayne Newton and Bellson's late wife Pearl Bailey.
Composer and author, he has written more than 1,000 compositions and more than a dozen books on drums and percussion. He received the prestigious American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. Also, he is a six-time Grammy nominee.
In 1998, Louie Bellson was hailed (along with Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Max Roach) as one of four "Living Legends of Music" when he received the American Drummers Achievement Award from the Zildjian Company.
Bellson holds four honorary doctorates, the latest from DePaul University in 2001. In 2003, a historical land-marker was dedicated at his July 6, 1924 birth house in Rock Falls, Illinois, thus inaugurating their annual 4-day celebration in his honor.
The 2006 CD release of The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and the Jazz Ballet amply showcased his mastery and breadth as both composer and performer. This "magnum opus" is well attested to by the highest accolades of colleagues Tony Bennett, Della Reese, Dave Brubeck, Lalo Schifrin, and others.
In March 2007, Bellson and 35 other jazz greats received the Living Jazz Legends Award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Jazz drumming legend Louie Bellson passed on February 14, 2009 at the age of 84 due to complications from a broken hip just several months earlier and Parkinson's disease.