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Bellson beat goes on

Bellson beat goes on

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Louie Bellson and Josh Duffee were born more than 50 years apart, but they were kindred spirits.

Mr. Duffee -- 30-year-old Moline High graduate, drummer, and leader of his own orchestra -- met Mr. Bellson, legendary drummer, band leader and Moline alumnus, about 30 times over the years. They shared a passion for the music of the 1920s.

"Each time he came to town, I asked him about drummers he liked from the '20s," Mr. Duffee recalled recently. The young drummer -- who once portrayed Mr. Bellson at the site of his father's music store on Moline's 5th Avenue for the city's 150th anniversary -- will perform on a 1930s field snare today at a special ceremony honoring Mr. Bellson at Riverside Cemetery.

"I will emulate his particular style on the snare drum," Mr. Duffee said. "It's just his creativeness. It was him. When you hear him, you know that's Louie. No one is able to really replicate it. He was so innovative, ahead of his time. It's an honor to just be a part of this, to do this for Louie."

A native of Rock Falls, Ill., Mr. Bellson grew up in Moline and died Feb. 14, 2009, at age 84. He was called "the world's greatest musician" by Duke Ellington, and he played on more than 200 albums with such greats as Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. He performed with vocalists Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Wayne Newton, and his late wife, Pearl Bailey, among many others.

Mr. Bellson composed more than 1,000 pieces and wrote a dozen books on drums and percussion. He received the American Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1994. The six-time Grammy nominee also received awards from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and theAmerican Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and held four honorary doctorates.

He headlined the Louie Bellson Jazz Festival in the Quad-Cities from 1994 through 1997, and in 2000 he was one of the first inductees to the Moline High School Hall of Honor.

Mr. Bellson's last area performances, in October 2008, were with the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble at the Louie Bellson Heritage Days celebration in Rock Falls, and with the Manny Lopez Band at River Music Experience in Davenport. In March 2009, State Rep. Mike Boland of East Moline introduced an Illinois House of Representatives resolution honoring Mr. Bellson's memory.

His life was memorialized at a March 4, 2009, funeral at Bethel Assembly of God Church, Rock Island. The drummer was buried holding a pair of Zildjian drumsticks at a family plot at Riverside Cemetery, 2900 6th Ave., Moline. Mr. Bellson's parents also are buried at Riverside, and his sister, Mary Selhost of Coal Valley, who died last month, is entombed at Riverside Mausoleum.

Today, the Rev. Dan Qualls, pastor at Bethel Assembly of God, will dedicate the drummer's headstone, designed by Mr. Bellson's widow and manager, Francine, and made by Moline Monument Co. It was installed last June, but Mrs. Bellson's hectic schedule didn't permit the dedication until now.

"I've been trying ever since it was installed," she said recently, noting that she's been kept very busy handling the affairs of his estate, royalties, memorabilia, and his library. "It's a full-time job."

The dedication will include presentation of an Illinois House of Representatives resolution by state Rep. Mike Boland in Mr. Bellson's memory.

At River Music Experience, beginning at 6 p.m., there will be public testimonials at an open mic; remarks by memorial race director Rob Moon, former Rock Falls mayor Glen Kuhlemier, and Bill DalCerro, author of "Italians in Jazz"; and a musical performance by the North Scott Jazz Ensemble, directed by Mike McMann, with special guest musicians. CDs by Mr. Bellson will be available for sale.

Moline meant a lot to Mr. Bellson and he meant a lot to the area, as evidenced by today's tributes and the 5K run in October, planned as an annual event.

"Every time he and Pearl would get a chance, they would come through town," Mrs. Bellson said. "His mother lived there until her 90s. He was always coming back."

She and Mr. Bellson met in 1991 on a jazz cruise from Vancouver, a salute to Duke Ellington in which he was playing with other Ellington alumni. She was a Silicon Valley physicist.

"Louie and I really respected each other," Mrs. Bellson said. "He would look at my physics books and go, 'Huh?,' and I would look at his charts and go, 'Huh?'

"We would give career speeches at schools, called 'The Physicist and the Percussionist.' He would talk as a jazz legend; I would encourage them to stay in school, show them the relationship between music and science, music and math."

The first Louie Bellson Memorial 5K Drum Roll will take place in Moline at a route and date to be announced. Proceeds will support music education in Illinois Quad-Cities schools. The winning student-designed logo will be unveiled at RME tonight.

"This would be a great way to honor Mr. Bellson -- do good things for schools," said Mr. Moon, race director and a Moline High alumnus.

"Louie was a health enthusiast all the time. He always went walking," Mrs. Bellson said, adding that he loved working with students.

Mr. Duffee also supports the planned race. "I think it's great, just making that for Louie," he said. "That's what he wanted -- education with kids. He would just be incredibly honored to know this is in his name, where he learned the drums, got everything going. ... (With) all the budget cuts for schools, this couldn't come at a better time."

For more information, visit

If you go

-- What: Louie Bellson memorial observances.

-- When: Headstone dedication, 4:30 p.m. today; reception from 6 to 9.

-- Where: Bellson gravesite, Riverside Cemetery, 2900 6th Ave., Moline; River Music Experience, 129 Main St., Davenport.

-- Admission: Free.


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