For years, musicians who worked with Bellson knew of his Jazz Ballet, which first was performed in Las Vegas in 1962. None other than Dizzy Gillespie played the lead part as the "bridegroom" who went through the various stages of marriage, including courtship, the wedding, arguments, reconciliation, aging and the eternity of the vows after passing. Cleverly, Bellson symbolizes the inexorability of time through the device of the drum’s tick-tocking throughout the ballet. The Jazz Ballet has been performed only five times since its introduction at the first Las Vegas Jazz Festival (quite a composition to kick it off!). Even though it’s intended to be a ballet, dancers have interpreted the work just once. Known as a drummer’s drummer, and one of Duke Ellington’s favorites, Bellson has received little recognition as a composer. In fact, though, he has written more than a thousand compositions. The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson and The Jazz Ballet should change the perception of Bellson as solely a drummer.
Bellson’s vision exceeded available resources throughout the years after The Jazz Ballet was introduced. First of all, the work requires a virtuoso trumpet player. Doc Severinsen played it several times in the few performances since 1962. In addition, it requires a versatile, technically proficient orchestra to play the shifting moods of the piece. All of these prerequisites coalesced in 2000, when Bellson worked with the University of Southern California’s Thornton Studio Jazz Band and The Thornton Symphony Strings and Choir to record both The Jazz Ballet and The Sacred Music concerts. Who would be available to perform the trumpet lead that Gillespie introduced? That would be Bobby Shew, who injects excitement and personality into his interpretation of The Jazz Ballet.
Bellson required even more resources to perform The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson. A choir and a string orchestra were added to accomplish the majestic sound that Bellson sought. USC offered all of those elements; they just had to be assembled. With the assistance of arrangers, producers, recording engineers and of course the students themselves, Bellson premiered his even more complex and spiritually celebratory suite, which started from a kernel of an idea the words, "No one but God" when Bellson was raising his young daughter.
In 1965, Bellson was the drummer with The Duke Ellington Orchestra when it played the debut of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965. It was with Ellington’s encouragement that Bellson wrote his own concert as well, though 35 years intervened before Bellson was able to play his own.
As one would expect, Bellson’s celebration of the Scriptures contains much force, driven often by the drums, particularly during the sonorous opening movement, "Lightning & Thunder." Even though that track starts with a rising fifth announced by the four members of Thornton Jazz Band’s trumpet section, the drums "the thunder" take over much of its remainder, signifying that dramatic occurrences of consequence will follow.
However, Bellson’s concert is varied in its richness and in its concepts. "No One but God," the next piece, is grand in its orchestration, employing not only the combined sound of the Jazz Band and the String Orchestra, but also the School's 20-member Choir. Once again, another Bellson movement rises in dramatic intensity and in harmonic development, as if uplift were the connecting motive of the entire concert. Even the Choir varies its delivery, moving from the sweep and theatricality of "No One but God" to the broad, spare harmonies of "Jesus," reminiscent of Gene Puerling arrangements for, say, The Hi-Lo’s. In addition to the unexpected polish of the Choir, the Jazz Band contributes entirely professional solos, including guitarist Ian Robbins’ work on "He’s the Lord," Jon Ruffridge’s nailing of the high notes on "Jesus," saxophonist Steve Torok’s jubilant solo on "Prelude & Celebration," and drummer Chris Steele’s nerve-wracking challenge of being the other drummer in Bellson’s dual samba percussion section during "Love."
The Sacred Music of Louie Bellson is a major work that, without the release of the CD, would have remained overlooked. It deserves a place along with the other spiritual jazz compositions including, yes, Ellington’s. No doubt, it will be performed in the future by other combined ensembles that can access the same vast range of resources that USC provided. The Sacred Music and The Jazz Ballet will be remembered as two of Bellson’s most accomplished achievements.