Butch Ballard: Legendary Philadelphia Drummer
AAJ: You grew up here in Frankford?
BB: I grew up at 4610 Hawthorne Street. Two blocks away from here.
AAJ: How did you get interested in playing the drums, and how did you get turned on to jazz?
BB: Those are two full questions. When I was seven to ten years old, the American Legion post at Orthodox Street and Paul Street used to march often for parades and so forth, up and down Orthodox Street, Torresdale Avenue, over to Margaret Street and then back to the post. I would notice only the drummer. I'd follow close up to him, and he'd shove me away, saying, "Get away, son! I'd pick myself up and keep following him. I'd get scolded by my parents for getting home late. I kept doing that. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I'd take my mother's silverware and go out in the back yard, playin' on bricks and stones. My father would keep getting on my case, but that's what I did because I wanted to play the drums.
When I was about ten or eleven, my dad went downtown to a pawn shop and bought me a set of drums. I was so happy. It had a huge 32-inch bass drum, too big for me. Then he bought a snare drum and one cymbal, and that was my drum set until I was sixteen years old. I was so tickled to play those drums. They had block parties in the neighborhood, and I met a man named Willie Grimes, an old guy who played the drums. I kept pursuing him, until he let me sit in with his band. The regular drummer thought I did pretty good, and they got Professor Coles to give me drum lessons for 75 cents a lesson! And that's how I learned to play the drums.
AAJ: Were you into jazz at that time?
BB: No, I was just playing the drums.
AAJ: I understand you eventually got hooked up with the Basie Band.
BB: That was much later on.
AAJ: During that stretch of time, how did you get from lessons with Professor Coles to Basie?
BB: Well, first I went down to the Boys Club and heard Herb Thornton's band. They actually let me sit in. So the regular drummer said, "How did you learn to play drums? I said "Professor Coles is teaching me. After that, a guy who heard me sit in played in a band downtown and invited me to join his band. He invited me to a rehearsal in South Philadelphia. Believe it or not, I got all my drums together and I walked to the Frankford elevated line, went to Fifteenth and Market, and took the subway to South Philadelphia, where the guys helped me carry my drums to the house where we were rehearsing. I was sixteen or seventeen years old. They liked me, and I stuck with the band for a few months. My parents thought I was out of my mind, carrying the drums over there every week. But I wanted to play the drums.
And I did! And I worked with a little group downtown called "The Dukes [no connection to Ellington] and I performed with them for three or four years. During that time, I hung around with Shadow Wilson, listening to him play in Bill Dogherty's big band. Then the guys in the Dukes said, "Hey man, you're real good. Why don't you go to New York? I said, "No, I'm still learning. Then I met Papa Joe Jones of the Basie Band. He was my idol. He could play, oh man. Anyhow, he got sick and Shadow Wilson went with Basie. They were in California, and then Shadow got an offer to be in the Woody Herman band, which paid a lot more money than Basie. So he recommended me to take his place. So Basie called me up, sent me a ticket, and flew me to California. That was around 1947-48. I was scared to death.
AAJ: Who was in the Basie Band at that time?
BB: Let's see. There was Earl "Smartie Warren on lead alto sax, Jack Washington on baritone, Jimmy Warren on one of the alto chairs. Emmett Berry, Clark Terry, Harry "Sweets Edison on trumpet. Singleton Palmer was on bass. I used to hear him at a section of St. Louis called Gaslight Square, when I went there to visit my sister. Clark Terry was in George Sachs' big band in St. Louis. That's where I met Clark. Before I went with Basie, I had worked with Cootie Williams, Eddy Vincent, and Arnett Cobb in New York. I even did a little stint with Illinois Jacquet's band.
AAJ: Let me see if I get the sequence right. At some point, you did a turn in the Navy in WWII?
BB: That's right. I was in the Sea Bees, and the commanding officer said, "I hear you've played with some of the big bands. He sent me over to audition. The guys in the band, said, "Boy, this fellow can play. So they put me in the band barracks. That was in Guam, 29th Special. I stayed in the band for three years. This was not a jazz band, but a military band.
AAJ: Just out of curiosity, was your unit all African-American, or was it integrated?
BB: It was all Afro-American. During that time there was no integration at all in the armed forces.
AAJ: What did you do after the war?
BB: They shipped me back to San Francisco, I got discharged, and caught a train to Philadelphia, and then back to New York to try to get my job back. But I had lost my "chops, and Cootie Williams' group didn't rehire me. So I went back home and started practicing, to get my chops back. I started working in Philly, got myself together, went back to New York and got a job with Eddie "Lockjaw Davis at Minton's Playhouse. I did several record dates with them. Then I got offers from Eddie Vinson and Arnett Cobb, so I jumped from band to band for a while. I worked in Clark Terry's big and little bands. So I was doing quite well.
AAJ: When does Duke Ellington come up?
BB: 1950. I was here in Philly then. I bought this home in 1950 for my wife, God rest her soul. All those pictures over there are hers. She was the most wonderful woman I ever met in my whole life. I married her when she was 21 and I was 22. Gorgeous, well-built lady, great cook, made all the draperies, she could sew like crazy. Her name was Jessie. We celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in Chicago. She was from Mississippi and Gary, Indiana. I married her in 1941-42 while I was still in the service.