Bellson Music Fest Celebrates a Legend

Now entering its third year, Bellson Music Fest is ready to jazz up the RB&W District in Rock Falls, Ill., on June 8.

“The festival honors Louie Bellson, who was born in Rock Falls and lived here until he was 4 years old,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls. “He never forgot Rock Falls, and he would often come back to visit.”

The world-renowned jazz drummer, composer, arranger and band leader is a first-rate musician and six-time Grammy nominee. He was also a prolific writer who penned a dozen books on the art of drumming and percussion.

He shared the stage with a variety of musical luminaries, including Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

“Louie played with almost every musician there was, from Duke Ellington to James Brown,” says Francine Bellson, who married Louie in 1992. “We traveled the world, him performing and recording, and I functioning as artist-manager, publicist and photographer.”

Mrs. Bellson plans to attend this year’s festival, the latest of many visits she has made to Rock Falls over the years, often with Louie, who died in 2009 at the age of 84.

This year’s celebration honors what would have been his 100th birthday.

“This year is a centennial celebration, so we’re making it about the big bands,” says Jones.
The day’s entertainment starts with a drum clinic conducted by Steve Smith, a former member of the rock band Journey. While the entire festival is dedicated to Louie Bellson, the clinic especially captures his spirit and contributions to music. It’s hosted at the McCormick Event Center, 205 E. Third St., and is free to all who attend.

“You don’t have to be interested in drumming,” says Jones. “If you’re a fan of Steve Smith and want to learn more about what he does, it’s the perfect place to go.”

The live music portion of the event begins at noon at the RB&W District Amphitheater, 201 E. Second St., with Jerry Criss and his Starlight Blues.

“They have a classic mix of Chicago Blues, soul, jazz, Motown and country,” says Jones. “They’re a fun group.”

The Yorkville Big Band, a 19-piece group from Yorkville, Ill., takes the stage at 2 p.m.
“They cover famous bands like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie,” says Jones. “They also perform arrangements of popular music from today.”

At 4 p.m., the Rock River Jazz Band takes over. The group, which hails from nearby Sterling, Ill., is a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to keeping big band and swing music alive.

“They were at our inaugural Bellson Music Fest,” says Jones. “They play a lot of jazz and big band music from the ’50s and ’60s.”

Anyone who’s seen a previous Bellson Music Fest will see another familiar face when Josh Duffee and his Orchestra start their set at 6 p.m.

Capping off the festival at 8 p.m. is Steve Smith and the Vital Information.

“They do a lot of different music, but mostly jazz,” says Jones. “It’s going to be a good night.”

All of the bands are scheduled to perform 90-minute sets at the amphitheater, but if weather doesn’t cooperate, the event will be moved a block away to the McCormick Event Center. While seating is available, Jones encourages people to bring lawn chairs and find a comfortable spot in the spacious riverside park. They can also bring an umbrella for shade.

Mrs. Bellson is currently working with the Library of Congress, donating thousands of Louie’s items as well as materials from his first wife: actor, singer and author Pearl Bailey.

Mrs. Bellson still maintains her husband’s music website,, and is passionate about sharing stories from his life and work. For her, Bellson Music Fest is an opportunity to celebrate her husband’s legacy.

“Louie Bellson was a man universally loved as a gentle and kind soul – as well as a towering figure in the world of drumming,” she says. “As I see it, our goal is to honor the legacy of a famous native son, a true American legend.”