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4 years later: Rock Falls not ready to forget Louie Bellson or festival

ROCK FALLS – It’s been 4 years since the community gathered to celebrate the life of Louie Bellson, one of Rock Falls’ favorite sons.

Born July 6, 1924, in Rock Falls, Bellson was one of the world’s most well-known jazz drummers. He died at age 84 in 2009.

On and off for a few years beginning in 2003, the community celebrated Bellson’s contributions with a Heritage Days festival.

Gayla Kolb, program coordinator at the Rock Falls Community Development Corp., was chairwoman of the Heritage Days Festival committee.

Kolb said it would be a great thing if Heritage Days were brought back, but she doesn’t know how feasible the idea is.

“We really struggled to get participation,” she said. “We had great participation the first year: Louis was here and played drums and gave a clinic. We had 1,000 people for that one. Thereafter, it dwindled down.

“If you ask somebody on the street who Louie Bellson was, a lot of people don’t know.”

In light of Bellson’s death, Kolb said she doesn’t know whether there is enough community interest to attend and support the return of Heritage Days.

“It was a definite struggle,” she said. “You saw the same people. ... Attendance dwindled down slowly. It just wasn’t worth it. Now that Louie has passed away, it’s going to be really, really difficult when Louie wasn’t going to be here anymore.”

There is some momentum in Louie’s favor, though. Rock Falls Alderman Glen Kuhlemier, who served on the Heritage Days Festival committee, recently brought a proposal to the city’s Recreational Trail Committee.

The proposal would designate the section of the Rock Falls Trail from McNeil Road to where the Riverside Bike and Walk (RB&W) District trail starts as the Louie Bellson Trail.

Kuhlemier said the committee hasn’t acted on the proposal, and there wasn’t a firm timeline yet for it to do so.

“Louie Bellson was a perfect gentleman,” he said. “He was always concerned about teaching the young about being a drummer. When he was here, he always had the classes for young drummers. He never drank; he never swore.”

Bellson wrote more than 1,000 pieces of music and was a recording star, Kuhlemier noted.

In addition, both he and Kolb said the city has one of Bellson’s drum sets.

The drum set is being stored until leaders decide on which option is best for putting it on display, Kolb said.

“There’s always been the possibility of a museum honoring Louie,” she said. “It would be down the road. It’s very expensive to do something like that.”

Meanwhile, area officials are trying to keep Bellson’s legacy alive.

“If a group of people came together and got ideas, it could interest the community and bring them out again,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that we aren’t taking advantage of such a famous person to bring more tourism into our area.”

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