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Louis Bellson

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

There are those who say that if you sit quietly along the banks of the Mississippi on a hot summer evening after the sounds of the day's business have died down, you can still hear the faint notes from phantom steamboats that brought jazz up the river from New Orleans so long ago, music from Louis Armstrong and others.  The beat is hypnotic. The river's version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin Town.Louis Bellson must have heard those notes, growing up along the river in Moline. By the age of three Louis was already playing drums. He pioneered the double-bass drum setup when he was only fifteen, and two years later, at seventeen, he won the Gene Krupa drum contest over 40,000 other contestants. Bellson quickly rose to become one of the top drummers in the world, playing with Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James. In between playing, he has found time to compose over 300 pieces, appear in a few movies, marry Pearl Bailey, and issue a flood of albums and CDs.

Yet again and again during his long busy career, Louis Bellson has returned to the Mississippi Valley for a few days at a time. Perhaps he is drawn back by those same phantom notes floating over the water—or by a desire to share them. He has never returned without sitting in on an impromptu jam session with local kids from high schools and colleges, passing along to fledgling jazz musicians a new technique, a fancy beat, and the knowledge that they played with the best. 

Of all his achievements in the world of music, it was Louis Bellson's concern for local kids that brought him back to commencement ceremonies at Augustana College in 1995 to receive an honorary doctorate.

When it came time to give the commencement address, Bellson stepped out of his robe and brand-new hood, took his place among a group of student musicians, and let his drums speak for him.

In doing so, Louis Bellson added two more achievements to his long list of accomplishments. Add his drum solo to a mere handful of commencement addresses that will be remembered in twenty years. The second is even more remarkable: it was the first time ever that an entire senior class has been drummed out of college.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.