On Valentine’s Day, jazz drummer Louie Bellson died at age 84. When I saw this bit of news, it took me a moment but I soon remembered the name. Duke Ellington, no less, had once called Bellson “the world’s greatest musician.” However, Mr. Bellson’s music career was not the reason I remembered him.
Last year, I ran across a black-and-white photo of the iconic African American actress/singer Pearl Bailey smoking, and I said to myself, I didn’t know Pearl Bailey smoked. But then I read the caption below that picture, “Pearl Bailey Married Louie Bellson in 1952,” and quickly forgot her bad habit. For the next hour or so, I was consumed with finding out about this guy with the cigarette lighter locked in Pearl’s gaze. Who was this white man?
Eventually this is what I turned up online …
Winner of a Gene Krupa talent contest while a teenager, Bellson was with the big bands of Benny Goodman (1943 and 1946), Tommy Dorsey (1947-49) and Harry James (1950-51) before replacing Sonny Greer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. A talented writer, Bellson contributed “Skin Deep” and “The Hawk Talks” to Duke’s permanent repertoire. He married Pearl Bailey in 1952 and the following year left Ellington to be her musical director. Bellson toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic (1954-55), recorded many dates in the 1950s for Verve and was with the Dorsey Brothers (1955-56), Count Basie (1962), Duke Ellington (1965-66) and Harry James (1966). He has been continually active up to the present day, leading big bands (different ones on the East and West Coasts), putting together combos for record dates, giving clinics for younger drummers and writing new music. Bellson has recorded extensively for Roulette (early ’60s), Concord, Pablo and most recently Music Masters. –Scott Yanow, The All Music Guide
After reading that, I felt better. For Pearl, that is. Not that I knew the woman personally. As a kid, I watched her on TV in the ’70s and ’80s, like most black Americans my age. I remember her sassy singing and that tiara. She was cool, funny, and dark-skinned (like me!)–and she was on TV. Wow!
I felt happy for her because Louie Bellson seemed like a good man, who truly loved his wife. I also suspected he knew a little something about being a minority, as he was for a while the only white member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
So why was I checking up on Pearl Bailey’s husband like she was a long lost aunt or somebody? I don’t know. I guess I needed to know that she had found some measure of happiness with the guy. This was her third marriage, after all.
There was something else too. I needed to see that an interracial marriage from “way back when” had worked. In showbiz, lasting marriages seem rare, not to mention a lasting interracial marriage. Bailey and Bellson stayed married from 1952 until her death in 1990. Thirty-eight years. I’d like to think that they made a good life together. That despite the cultural stigmas and skewed mores of the time, they stuck it out. Like a couple should. No matter the differences on the outside. In Pearl’s words, “You never find yourself until you face the truth.”
The truth is, I find myself expecting interracial, cross-cultural marriages to work. I find myself saying to them, in my mind at least, “You’d better make this work. You’d better be together for genuine love. Not because you want your babies to have ‘nice hair.’ And not because ‘you know the sex is better with them.’ ” Rather, I desire good things for these relationships because interracial marriage continues to be one of our society’s most bold and visible illustrations of the power of love over racism.
I also find myself inspecting those couples. You can spot the real couples a mile away. The ones that are in it for love, for the long haul. That skill has come from decades of ogling. They’re comfortable in their own skin and up close to one another’s. And in a wacky kind of way, seeing them that way gives me a measure of comfort-for them, for their children, and even for myself. If interracial couples can build a lasting marriage, despite the negative reactions and cultural stigmas, then there must be hope for the next generation (their children especially) to move beyond the old barriers.
I’m not in an interracial marriage. My husband and I are African American. However, in college, before Claude and I moved beyond the superficial dating stage, I had a very close “friendship” with a white classmate. My husband later admitted that the relationship didn’t sit well with him–not just because my friend was competition, but because the young man was not black. Claude had prejudices that he needed to face up to. Over time, however, he saw that God doesn’t just pair couples up like matching socks.
So what did I find out about myself by chasing down Pearl Bailey’s white husband on the Internet? That I’m probably as crazy as any dark-skinned sister on the street, liable to give the “eye” to the interracial couples I see walking by. But hopefully not to judge them, but to affirm their commitment to one another.
For that I say, “Thanks Pearl and Louie.”