Butch Ballard: Legendary Philadelphia Drummer
So, in 1950, after I got my chops back, I got this call from Duke Ellington. I was asleep, and my wife said, "Daddy, you have a call from a Mister Duke Ellington. I said, "Who? I took the phone. He said, "Are you Butch Ballard? Butch, this is Duke Ellington. My son, Mercer, told me you play good drums. Well, I'd like you to come join our band in Europe for a few months. I want you to speak to my agent in New York. My heart is beating fast. I said to my wife, "It's Duke Ellington, sweetheart. He wants me to come with his band! We stayed up the whole night. I got my passport together, and went to New York and signed up with his agent. I had a meeting with Duke Ellington. We went over on the Ile de France. I met all the guys, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Cat Anderson. I was scared to death! We had rehearsals on the boat. Sonny Greer had all his drums there.
AAJ: Why were you going if Sonny Greer was the drummer?
BB: Sonny was drinking quite a bit, and Duke wanted me there for insurance. I met Harry Carney, Russell Prokoff, Paul Gonzalves, Jimmy Hamilton.
AAJ: Was Billy Strayhorn on that trip?
AAJ: Did they have a vocalist?
BB: Kay Davis and Chubby Kemp, those were the two girls. Kay was gorgeous. She had just graduated from Northwestern University. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. But she didn't pay me no mind. Chubby Kemp, she was a little fat lady. She said, "You don't even notice me! [laughter]
AAJ: What was the first job you did over there?
BB: We arrived in Le Havre, France. We had rehearsed on the boat every day.
AAJ: So Sonny was the main drummer. How did you get a chance to play?
BB: At the first concert in France. Wendell Marshall was my partner, the bassist, one of the finest musicians in the world. He showed me everything I needed to know in the Ellington band. I had a small set of drums, and Sonny had a huge drum set, but Duke liked the way I could swing.
AAJ: Did you do any recordings with Ellington?
BB: Oh yeah! I made a whole lot of records with the band at Capitol Records in California. Juan Tizol, Strayhorn, and Ellington wrote a lot of tunes for the band at the time.
AAJ: Did you eventually take over from Greer?
BB: We came home from Europe and Duke hired Louis Belson. Duke wanted the double bass drums, which I wasn't into. But Duke knew I could play his book. So I got back with the band in California. Cat Anderson, Clark Terry, Willie Cook, and Ray Nance were in the band at that time.
AAJ: Now how did you get to play with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan?
BB: That took place back when I was with Cootie Williams' band at the Savoy Ballroom in the early '40s. At that time, I worked with Ella and Sarah and Dinah Washington and Pearl Bailey. I even worked with Pearl when she performed at the small clubs in downtown Philadelphia. I knew her first husband, Les Miller, a very handsome guy. She was crazy about him and insanely jealous. Cootie Williams had a great band then. We also had Eddie "Cleanhead Vinson, Charlie Holmes, Stan "The Man Taylor, Lee Polk, and Gritty Walton. Those were the saxophonists. Joe Guy, Emmett Berry, and E.V. Perry on trumpet.
AAJ: You played with Lucky Millinder for a while?
BB: He was a band leader back then. He played mostly the Savoy Ballroom, and other places as well. He was wild! He would jump on these boxes, get up and jump on the piano! He was an amazing guy.
AAJ: If you had to make a list of the greatest Philadelphia jazz musicians of all time, who would you put on your particular list?
BB: I would start with the Bill Dogherty Big Band. He had some of the best players. Shadow Wilson on drums, Wimpy Lawrence on bass, Bill Dogherty on piano, and Roscoe Fritz on guitar. Don't come no better than that rhythm section. Now Frankie Fairfax had a big band. He had trumpeters Carl Warwick Obama, Carl Warren, and Jimmy "Hambone Hamilton. Hamilton played saxophone and trumpet with the Fairfax band. And Dizzy Gillespie was in that same band. That was in the '40s at the Strand Ballroom. Now, Jimmy Gorham had a great big band, with the drummer, writer, and arranger Bradford Shepherd, who also played trombone. He was one of my best friends. He moved out to the West Coast.
AAJ: You know Bootsie Barnes?
BB: He's one of my best friends in all the world.
AAJ: How do you know Bootsie?
BB: I worked with him a lot. I often hired him. I think he's the best saxophonist in Philadelphia. I've known him for years. Jimmy Hamilton is his cousin. They go to St. Croix often. I've been there several times with them. Jimmy Hamilton's wife, Evelyn, used to play at the Buccaneer Hotel in St. Croix.
AAJ: You've played a lot in the big band scene. So how are you adjusting to your current trio?
BB: I've got Sam Dockery on piano, Dylan Taylor on bass. And we have the vocalist, Barbara Lester. We're at the Mozaic club on Frankford Avenue.
AAJ: What's the secret of your good health and well-being at age 88?
BB: I take care of myself, don't drink or smoke. No cigarettes, no dope. I have high blood pressure and take medication for that.
AAJ: Do you have a special diet?
BB: Heck, no! [He calls in his cousin, who is in the kitchen.] Hey, Adeline, come in here a second. He wants to know if I'm on a special diet!
Adeline: He eats anything he can get his hands on!
AAJ: How do you keep your weight down? You look terrific!
Adeline: The ladies keep him trim. [laughter]
AAJ: How did you find out you won the Mellon Award?
BB: The people from Mellon in Pittsburgh called me. Mrs. Cigna called me a dozen times.
AAJ: What does the award mean to you personally?
BB: I was very moved. The tears were coming down. [He shows me the award, a beautiful glass sculpture.] Read the inscription on it.
AAJ: "In recognition of your significant contributions to jazz in the Philadelphia region and beyond.
BB: Last year, I won the Tony Williams Scholarship Award.
AAJ: Do you know Tony?
BB: Yeah, he's a good friend of mine.
AAJ: Look, you've been around a long time. What does it mean for you to get these awards now?
BB: Well, it's a thrill, now that I'm almost ninety years old to receive these awards. It's great! God has been good to me. I get down on my knees every night. God has been good to me my whole career. He let me make a living playing drums all my life. And teach kids to play drums.
AAJ: What do you teach new guys?
BB: I teach them all the fundamentals first.
AAJ: Can you teach somebody to really swing, or is that a gift?
BB: Let me say this. I was listening to a guy yesterday, and I said, "Your technique is good, but you're not swingin'. You're just bangin' away. I had to let him down gently. He couldn't play jazz.