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Interviews

Jeff Ballard: Paid Dues

By Published: October 11, 2013
JB: Not really. Somehow I have a connection with it. I've been to Brazil, I've been to Argentina, [and] I've been to Peru. I haven't been to Cuba, haven't been to Africa. But I have the most experience with bands from Cuba and Africa, actually, and Brazilian as well. But I have not been there, and I've been dying to get there. I want to go with someone so I can cut to the chase and get right in there.

GC: Right. What do you think about paying dues as a musician? What were the dues that you paid?

JB: I'm a dues-paying-dude, I tell you. I paid a lot... I dig, you know. I think it really gives you a better appreciation of the gift that you have, to be able to play. I was lucky in the beginning, I had a good feel so I could play with some good players, but a lot of the music I was playing was weddings, conventions, we'd play dance music. We'd play jazz standards as well but it was all for a function. And then later, some more gigs, and that was cool. But that was work for a while; I was making more money doing those kinds of gigs. Then after I went on the road, I was paying dues another way—traveling seven months out of the year and not coming home, and that's old school trench work, in a way. It was the best, you know—it was really great. But it was dues in that sense—you get on the bus, next day you get on the bus, next day you get on the bus, next day— sometimes you don't even sleep in the hotel, you hit and you run, and that's some dues. Then another kind of dues... you've got to keep your energy. It's the same show every night—almost—but it's different every time. Same music, but it's like it's the first time. Then there's other dues, like [being] in New York and starting off and it really not working much at all—working as a bike messenger, a bus boy, and not having much money, borrowing money from my friends or my parents and just kind of scraping along— it took me a few years, took me about four or five years before I was working and able to survive off of my playing.

GC: What year was that?

JB: I lived in New York in '90. I started playing in '94, starting playing a little bit more in '95, started playing with people like Danilo Perez
Danilo Perez
Danilo Perez
b.1966
piano
in '94, something like that. So paying dues, I think—I guess you could say it's very important, but you could also say it's not absolutely necessary. But I do think it makes you better rounded, more humble, a greater awareness of what it is that we're doing because you can appreciate it more... maybe. It's a tremendous gift that we have, to be able to do this. Play what we feel, and have someone say "Please come and do that, and let me give you some money for it, and we'll treat you well." That should never be forgotten. I think, in a sense, dues would help hammer that home. I think it helps. It brings maturity to your playing. It brings value to what you do. In that sense, it's a vital thing. It's great.

GC: Can you talk about some of your favorite sidemen gigs over the years? Are there things that you feel like you do differently depending on the situation? Are there things that you feel that you do the same regardless of who you're playing with?

JB: Yeah. I used to say I play the same, but I don't, really. I do play differently in different situations. Great sidemen gigs for me are the last great ones that I've had. Danilo Perez was a good one, Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
was another good one, playing with Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
was tremendous, Joshua Redman—playing in the Elastic Band with Sam Yahel
Sam Yahel
Sam Yahel

keyboard
was really fun, different kinds of music I could play. And then with Brad [Mehldau] as a sideman was great too, it opened my ears up and having someone to have so much interaction with—I'd never played with anybody that had so much interaction. Everything I did was used and thrown into the...Josh does the same, Mark Turner
Mark Turner
Mark Turner
b.1965
sax, tenor
does the same, a lot of guys do the same. But with Brad it was really, really intense and I really grew to prefer that way. So... what was the other part to that question?

GC: What things do you do the same and what things do you do different?


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