Impeccably dressed in a tailored suit with silk tie and matching handkerchief, drummer Louis Bellson was part of jazz royalty.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Bellson kept time for the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Harry James, Stephane Grapelli, Tony Bennett and hundreds of others. He also received four Grammy Award nominations and the American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Upon presenting him and several other jazz greats with the award, NEA chair Jane Alexander said: "These colossal talents have helped to write the history of jazz in America."
Born Louis Paulino Balassone in Rock Falls, Ill., in 1924, Bellson spent his life helping to break racial barriers. In 1951, he replaced Sonny Grier in Duke Ellington's band, making him the first white musician to play in a "black" band. His marriage in 1952 to African-American entertainer Pearl Bailey sent mild shock waves through much of America.
In his later years, Bellson gave back to the world of jazz, which had given him so much. When not hosting clinics, he taught and performed with the University of Northern Illinois Jazz Band. Bellson also toured with his quintet, performing hits like "Skin Deep" and "Ting-A Ling" only months before his death in February of 2009.
-- David Witter