Louie in London


It's always a joy to come back to London, and to meet all our dear friends again. Both my wife, Pearl Bailey, and I really love it over here. Like everybody says, London swings. But when you say swings-it swings every way; not only with night-clubs, but the general tone of living is very good. And, of course, we got married here twenty years ago, and this is sort of a second honeymoon for us. This, too, is the first time we've appeared together in London.

Pearl is doing a fantastic job at Talk Of The Town . She got rave reviews and the audiences every night have been tremendous. I didn't do any kind of a speciality number there, because, as you know, they have the big production show first, and then they require one hour or so of the main star. She wanted me to play a little bit; so on "Chicago" at the very end she had the boys in the band do a little jam session, which gave me a chance to play maybe four or five choruses.

It worked out beautifully. It was just a shame I couldn't stay the whole five weeks of her engagement, but I have a commitment to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival, as well as four or five dates with my band, several recordings and other important things that were booked before Pearl arranged this date.

I'll be coming back to Europe, though, starting October 25th in Zurich, for a two-and-a-half-week tour with Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic. I'll be playing with the all-star group, which will include Oscar Peterson, Zoot Sims, Roy Eldridge.

However, as I told Buddy Rich, I would really like to bring my band over here-and he agreed. He said: "You've really got to go to London with your band." All my visits here have been either with JATP, which is fine, or with Tony Bennett, and this time with Pearl. I'd like to 'do my own thing', by having my own band here, like Buddy has. Then you'll really get that initial impact of seeing me in that setting. And I hope that happens within the next year. I'm working on it, but it's no easy thing to get eighteen men from California and back.

I think we can co ordinate it, because Ronnie Scott has offered us ten days, we'll be able to do two albums, and so forth. I'm really looking forward to it.

In fact-talking about Norman Granz-he heard about the fantastic enthusiasm that we had when Buddy Rich's band and our band worked in the same place far two days in the States last year. And he said it would be nice to do one-nighters here with both bands at the same time. Because that way you can get everybody in a bus and combine the expenses. If we did that, then both bands could also work Ronnie Scott's; we could really make a marvellous tour out of it. With his band and our band, it would create plenty of excitement. Of course, there'd be a lot of blood spilled on the bandstand! The Frank King Tribute concert last December with Buddy and Kenny Clare was another very memorable occasion.

I just saw Kenny, by the way, in the States-he's working with Tony Bennett, and doing a fine job. I know he misses his family, though. We had dinner together and talked; he's quite busy over here, and it's sort of a challenge for him to figure out whether he wants to come back, or stay with Tony. It's a wild decision to make. But everybody in the States just think Kenny's great; those who have not heard him before are over whelmed at his playing. I know he'd do extremely well there, with Tony or whatever. There's always room for a great player-which Kenny is. That's what we call separating the men from the boys.

Kenny sounded wonderful on that recording with Buddy and I, too. I just heard it about a week ago. You know, the mail gets slow sometimes; I suddenly got the copies, and I listened to it on my stereo. I was very delighted with all the three sounds; it was done very well. I hope they release that in the States, be cause I think he'll get a lot of listeners, out of people who would be interested in that.

My jazz ballet? Well, I was commissioned to do it a few years ago, where Dizzy Gillespie was the initial soloist; it worked out so well. I just added strings to it in case we wanted to do it with a full orchestra, but basically it's done with twenty-six men. And I would like to come over here and record that-mainly because I'd like to have Kenny Clare involved in it, and also two other British percussionists. It's an exciting piece, about a half-hour of music; I think we can probably get a whole album out of it.

My directions also, in 1974. . . you know, you always have to think ahead, when it comes to the symphonic orchestras; even though this is only 1972, they always book a year in ad vance. And I have five major works to my credit right now-fuIl orchestral pieces. One is a solo vehicle for piano; two of them are percussion solos. The great conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein gave me this initial idea. We're very close friends, and he said to me one day: "Look, there are so many violin solos, piano solos and everything. You're such a great artist-why don't you write a Drum Concerto, featuring you with the full symphony orchestra?" That got my wheels turning and so forth-and I did two of them.

We rehearsed one, which is quite good, I think; it's very modern in context. It looks like I'm going to get the first performances in Milwaukee and Chicago in 1974; we're working that out now. Eventually, I'd like to come over here with it, be cause you have a great philharmonic orchestra here under the direction of Andre Previn, and we're close friends also. It just takes one or two concerts to get this going, you know, and just hope that you get fairly good reviews. If you do, then you can go cross-country and all over, the world, in fact, to perform this.

That's an open field, and I think it would be marvellous to do that. Because I would say my writing in this direction is maybe seventy-five per cent in symphonic form, but there are still little touches of modern music or jazz or whatever you want to call it. To me, it all ties in together. It's music-so I don't like to say that this part is jazz, this part is something else, but to consider it all the same way Ellington does, as an artistic expression. Then you don't have to categorise anything.

Yes, we can have dancers for my ballet. When we did it in Las Vegas we had about twenty excellent dancers. By the way, this ballet is based on the marriage vows. Berry Ashton and Larry Multinado were the two gentlemen who did all the choreography and so forth; they did a tremendous job. We worked pretty closely together, to make sure everything worked out right. It was a new type of venture for me; I've never writ ten any kind of a ballet before. So it was very interesting, and it really took me on a new journey. I'd like to do a little more of that. I can see where Stravinsky really enjoyed doing ballets, because it was another musical outlet for him.

The idea of basing it on the marriage vows came frown Berry and Larry; then they told me to write one segment at a time. This is in four movements. I would complete one movement, after which I had two excellent pianists in Los Angeles record, this, because we needed all that kind of sound. And as I did each of the four sections, they choreographed it with this tape. When we'd compiled the whole thing, we had a rehearsal with the full band.

It really came off great, and was well received. The other performance we had was when Stan Kenton called me to do one of his Neophonic concerts in Los Angeles. We did it there, which got us a favourable review from Leonard Feather, and so forth. It's only had the two performances; nobody's really heard it yet. That's why I say I'd like to record it here. With all the talent over here, we could stage it very easily in London, too.

I'm sure the ballet would make very good television, especially over here. In the States, our TV is so commercialised, but we have a couple of purely artistic stations. Like Channel 28, where they will hire someone to come in and do an hour of music. They had, for instance, Mundell Lowe, Harry "Sweets" Edison, a whole bunch of all-stars in a big band, and just did a straight hour of good music. This would be the station to do something like the ballet.

Writing is something I've always enjoyed doing, and I do spend more time on it now than I ever did. I've found out, as I get on in years-I feel like I'm twenty years old today, and I reached the fifty-year mark July 6th-that I have more strength now than I had before. Because I'm able to time myself and pace myself. Like, flying over here from California takes nine-and-a-half hours, and I can practically do a score on the plane.

So, what I'm getting at is: it's amazing what you can do in maybe just one or two hours.

I would say that I spend an awful lot of time playing-much more than I do writing. The time that I spend in writing I know I would just be wasting on going to some dumb movie, or something like that; I would rather put it to good use. See, all this anxiety is within me, and I have to get it out. I'm that kind of person; if something's inside, a tune or whatever, I must rush for a pencil and paper-otherwise I lose it.

The writing ability has paid off so much. For instance, this past January, after Buddy Rich had his great success over here at Ronnie Scott's, then had a vacation, he came back to work and was suddenly rushed to hospital: They had to operate on him; he had two discs removed from his back. And the first guy they called was me, because the promoters said that they would only accept the band if I would front it. Buddy and I be ing very close friends, and knowing he'd do the same for me, I had to juggle my dates around and cancel out some things; but they understood what the situation was.

So I had a month with Buddy's band, which I really enjoyed very much. He's got a great organisation-Pat La Barbera, Lin Biviano, Jimmy Mosher and all the guys are just fantastic. My writing helped there, because they asked me to bring in about fifteen of my arrangements, and play the rest of the time with all of Buddy's things. I knew that, a lot of youngsters over there wanted to hear my version of "West Side Story", "Channel One Suite" and all this; it really was an exciting month for me. I vas able to rehearse the band, and to write some new things for them.

It was very interesting to see the reaction of the guys, and I'm sure that if Buddy was to come into my band it would be the same. Even though we're almost the same age, and we dig almost the same things, there are still no two players alike. We propel the same general energies out of the band; each of us is a driving force. Of course, my band got a little worried, because they figured I was off for good! But Buddy's back now, and I hope everything's okay. I seem to worry a little bit about him, because an operation like that requires a lot of healing time, and I think four weeks was maybe too much of a rush: I wanted to stay a little longer, but then my wife got sick. Pearl had a heart attack; so I had to go back and try to straighten that out.

That experience with Buddy's band was an absolute joy, anyway. It's too bad we didn't have a chance to record some of those nights, but the problem is that the Union doesn't let us do that. But it's a shame, because we had some beautiful moments.

As for that Louie Bellson Day they put on in my home town-that was really something, too. It was supposed to be a sort of a surprise, but they had to let me know about what was going to happen, since we had to figure out a day in my schedule. This actually happened on May 9th. I didn't know it was going to be as big as it was; I thought it was just going to be flying into Molines, Illinois, having a luncheon date with the mayor there, accepting an award and that would be it. But I flew in the night before and I was greeted at the airport by the mayor, who had Miss Molines with him; around a thousand people were gathered to welcome me.

The next morning they got me up to do a television show; they had shipped in a brand new set of drums for it. My whole family were with me, and then I was sent up to the alma mater, Molines High School, where I did a concert with the school band and gave a lecture on music to all the young students. I went around and met all my old teachers. This took up most of the morning; then at noontime they had a special luncheon for me. One big surprise was that they flew in Roy Knapp from Chicago, who I studied with as a youth. The great Gene Krupa studied with Roy, too, and, of course, Buddy knows him very well. And he's eighty-four years old now; it was a joy to see him.

They also had recorded sounds from a lot of dear friends who couldn't be there. There were taped interviews from Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson and Ed McMann, plus a beautiful one from Tony Bennett. And they handed me a telegram from the great Duke Ellington. He wanted to be there, but his tele gram was very interesting. It started: "Dear people of Molines"; he went on to say what he thought of me, that our great association has been one that will never die, and spoke of all the tremendous respect that he has for me. Finally, a typical Ellington statement: "The only thing I dislike about Louie Bellson is that he quit playing drums in my band and wouldn't let me play piano in his band." Also at that luncheon they had seven players that I had worked with in Molines, in a big band and a small group. They were hidden behind a curtain, and the set of drums was there; so I played a couple of tunes with them. This was the finale of that luncheon date, apart from my making a speech of thanks. Then in the early evening they had a big parade downtown, and I went down and met all of the store owners. A lot of great pies were taken that day, and I received a lot of beautiful plaques: It was really a lovely day. I shall look back on that as one of the special events in my life.

What was so beautiful also was that the following month We were booked into the Wells Fargo Club there, where they book all the jazz groups, and I brought my entire eighteen men in for two days. Which was a highlight. We also played for a special musicians' party; a thousand musicians came along. My crew from California just knocked 'em out.

But this great thing I was talking about with Buddy's band and my band-we really have to do this in Britain. It happened as a direct result of that unfortunate riot they had at New port. We were hired by George Wein to come back East to play the Newport Jazz Festival, and while we were there we were to play five days at a club called Lennie's On The Turnpike, in Boston. This is where Buddy works all the time, too. The idea was that Buddy, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton were to open up the Jazz Festival at Newport, and we were to play five days at Lennie's. Then we were to close the Festival, and Buddy was coming in after us to do five days at Lennie's: But no one had any thought of us both playing together, because Lennie's only seats about two hundred people-it's smaller than Ronnie Scott's.

So we had this all booked. Then Lennie's had a terrible fire; the place burned down. Which meant that we had to cancel out everything, because there was no way we could just do the concert at Newport. Next thing was that we got notification from Lennie; he said "There's a holiday inn back here that seats a thousand people. We can get the place, so that you can play five days and still do your Newport date, and Buddy can do likewise."
Okay, we did our first five days there. Well, it's history what took place at Newport. They did the first night; then they had the riot. So now Buddy had two days open at the weekend, and so did we. My manager thought: "With this seating, why don't we have both bands? We'll put a big sign out front and call it Percussion Power. Each band can do separate sets; then both bands can play one tune together, where Buddy and Lou will have a challenge." Well, that worked out, and it was fantastic. They couldn't get all the people in; there were five or six hundred or more people waiting outside to get in, both of the two nights. After our respective bands played forty-five minute sets, both bands together played Don Menza's "Groovin' Hard"; we opened up the middle, and Buddy and I played fours. And for some reason-unrehearsed-I wound up in his band, and he wound up in my band. That's just the way it happened.

Doing this twice a night for two nights, the intensity and the excitement was just great. Buddy and I agreed we should do this maybe for two or three weeks cross-country tour in the States. And it would be fabulous to do it over here, because with the success we've both had and liking this country so much, I think it would be a capper to end all cappers, really.

We talked about it long after, and we're still excited about doing it, because it shows him off, then it shows me off, then we both do our thing together. You know, the young members of our bands have never seen anything like this-the kind of feeling you get from having two top bands together. But years ago we used to do that. Like, Buddy remembers when Tommy Dorsey would have a Battle Of Bands with Benny Goodman, and Duke would have one with Jimmy Lunceford; at the Savoy Ballroom. Then Chick Webb used to have one with Goodman; Gene told me that Chick almost ran him into the floor. They don't do these things any more; as a result, these young players were like somebody shook 'em up; "Wow, man, that was something else!" And that audience reaction was tremendous.

You know, after two days Buddy and I looked at one an other and said: "Goodbye-and I hope I don't see you for a while!" After every show it was as if we'd been thrown in the river. We were really wiped out.

Copyright © 1967 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.