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Master Jazz Drummer Louie Bellson Dies

Louis Bellson tests out equipment at the headquarters of Gretsch Drums in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Louis Bellson tests out equipment at the headquarters of Gretsch Drums in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Louie Bellson, a virtuoso jazz drummer whose career spanned more than seven decades, has died from complications of Parkinson's disease after breaking his hip late last year. He was 84.

Bellson's performance credits include collaborations with a who's-who of jazz. He's best remembered for his work in late Swing Era big bands — Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, among others — and for leading his own ensemble.

But Bellson was also an arranger and composer of more than 1,000 pieces. Perhaps his most famous tune, "Skin Deep," was written during his tenure in Ellington's orchestra.

In 1952, while with Ellington's band, Bellson met singer Pearl Bailey. Shortly thereafter, he became her husband and band director.

Born Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Ballasoni, Bellson took to the drums at a young age, and became known as a prodigy. He learned to play drums in his father's music store in Moline, Ill., where he started giving lessons as a teenager.

When Bellson was 17, one of his mentors, equally legendary jazz drummer Gene Krupa, selected him as the winner of a national drumming contest. A few years later, Bellson was touring with Benny Goodman. He would eventually perform on more than 200 albums.

In addition to performing, Bellson made teaching a lifelong pursuit as a clinician, a music educator and a writer of instructional books on drumming and jazz.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.