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Bellson’s widow keeping his musical legacy alive
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Bellson’s widow keeping his musical legacy alive

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For the past 15 months, Francine Bellson has gone through the same grieving process as many widows, compounded by a multitude of decisions to be made about her late husband’s musical legacy.

“If anybody thinks I’m not doing anything, (they’re wrong),” the widow of famed jazz drummer Louie Bellson said, laughing slightly.

“It’s been difficult, mainly from the hard work and dealing with lawyers and (music licensing organizations),” she said by telephone from her home in San Jose, Calif.

A public and visible tribute to the jazz drummer — born in Rock Falls, Ill., and raised in Moline — will be dedicated Thursday at Riverside Cemetery in Moline. A monument, designed by Francine, depicts a young Bellson, drumsticks in hand, and his signature.

Bellson died on Valentine’s Day 2009, after a broken hip led to pneumonia, all complicated by Parkinson’s disease. A memorial service was held in the Quad-Cities a few weeks later, prior to his burial.

“There are drummers all over the world, and when they come, they want to see something,” his widow said. “I wanted to honor the Q-C heritage of an Illinois native son as well as an American legend.”

She also will attend a memorial service at the River Music Experience, or RME, in Davenport, where the winner of a contest to design the logo for the first Louie Bellson 5K Memorial Drum Roll will be announced. The race, to benefit music education programs in Illinois Quad-City schools, will take place this fall.

The memorial service will include remembrances by Bellson friends and fans, as well as a performance by the North Scott High School Jazz Band.

Francine will spend much of the day discussing which mementos and items owned by her husband will be donated to the RME, which has had large Bellson displays.

The wealth of Bellson material — his widow estimates about four palettes full — includes items from his late wife, singer-actress Pearl Bailey, as well as hundreds of his own arrangements and compositions.

“He kept his music in far better shape than places that were more well-known,” Francine said.

The arrangements, numbering in the thousands, likely will be bequeathed to an as-yet-undetermined university’s music library, she said.

“What can I do? I’m not a musician,” said Francine, a physicist who met her husband of 16 1/2 years on a jazz cruise.

She is the subject of a Wall Street Journal story, appearing this month, about the widows of jazz greats each protecting their husband’s legacy.

Since his death in February 2009, she also has mourned the loss of Bellson’s sister and daughter, each named Dee Dee (the daughter of Bellson and Bailey, Dee Dee died unexpectedly July 4 at the age of 49), as well as the illnesses of Francine’s own father and younger brother.

“I’ve been dealing with stuff left and right,” she said. “But the strong Christian background gets you through, and that’s all I’ll say.”

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