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Butch Ballard: Legendary Philadelphia Drummer

Victor L. Schermer By

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I was asleep, and my wife said, 'Daddy, you have a call from a Mister Duke Ellington.' I said, 'Who?'
Butch BallardGeorge Edward "Butch Ballard is a celebrated drummer, now 88, who swung with the Cootie Williams, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie big bands, to mention just a few of the items on his resume. Beyond that, however, this cat is truly an American phenomenon, an African-American from a working class family who realized his childhood dream through a total obsession with the drums during the time of segregation and through to the present day.

Now, he looks back on a lifetime of achievements, warm friendships, and tales of top musicians. These reminiscences were occasioned by his receiving the Mellon Jazz Community Award on December 1st, 2006 for his musical achievements and contributions to jazz education in Philadelphia. On December, 10th, at the request of the Mellon people and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, I interviewed Ballard at his long-time home in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, an ethnically diverse blue collar neighborhood where he has resided for most of his life. At 88, Ballard is totally alert and focused—like a drummer must be. He has remarkable energy for a man his age. He still fronts his own jazz trio which plays regularly around town. He has many, many students to whom he gives precious gems of insight. He dedicates himself to jazz education. His home is warm and full of life, his cousin Adeline whipping up dinner in the kitchen, Ballard moving all around the living room showing me his various mementos, recordings, and photographs. There is a warm feeling of spontaneous love and generosity there. This is a man who radiates joy and love. Mr. Ballard is an icon of African-American history whose legacy belongs in the Smithsonian Institute. Like Louis Armstrong, with whom he performed, Ballard represents those African-Americans who bore the indignities of segregation yet never lost their decency, love of all that is human, and spiritual roots. I feel blessed being in his presence. This iconic story of the courage and character of the African-American family has been represented in literature and drama like A Raisin in the Sun but has yet to be told in its fullness. But Ballard's identity is pure percussion! He even did the interview like a drummer: rhythmically, fast paced, and right on top of every question. I had to jump in there on the beat to give my questions. There was a pulsation and steady swinging movement throughout, which is difficult to capture in a transcription, but some of that does come through. So does Ballard's obvious affection for his mentors and fellow musicians and his gratitude for having lived a fruitful life. In part, you, the reader, will be taken back in time to the days of the big bands—the great African-American bands that played in Harlem and around the country and Europe—and will get a lively taste of what it was like to be a jazz musician coming up during those heady times.

Butch Ballard: Hi Vic! I just got back from church. The Second Baptist around the corner here.

All About Jazz: Do they have music there?

BB: They have two or three choirs. They do gospel music. No jazz.

AAJ: Trudy Pitts plays some church gigs. Do you know her?

BB: Who don't I know in Philadelphia?

AAJ: She's playing at Old Pine Church. It's the anniversary of their long-running Jazz Vespers, which she helped to start.

BB: I played there—three or four times. By the way, you should know that I'm hard of hearing. Recently I met one of the women from the Mellon Jazz Festival. She said, "Mr. Ballard, you can hardly hear anything!

AAJ: [Voice raised a few decibels.] What do you do when you play?

BB: I hear everything when I'm playing the drums.

AAJ: That's amazing that you can hear everything only when you're playing music!

BB: I also know the book—I've been with the band fourteen years, so I know the whole library. I also know the entire book of the Legends of Jazz band at the Clef Club. And I did the same thing with Ellington, Basie, and Clark Terry. I memorized the whole book so I could add some of my own reflections in there. I learned that from getting' cussed out by some of my own peers when I went to New York, like big Sidney Catlett, J.C. Heard, and Papa Joe Jones. Shadow Wilson was one of my first inspirations here in Philadelphia. I watched him play with the Bill Dogherty Big Band. Shadow was one of the greatest drummers in the world. He got hooked up with drugs, and it took him out. But what a great drummer! He'd put that foot down, boy! Wow!

AAJ: Did you guys do the rhythm on the bass drum or the cymbals?

BB: No, no. I use the whole drum set—cymbals, bass drum, sock cymbal in your left hand. You do what you have to do. These days, I teach drums—I tell my students things they must do. The drummer holds the whole band together. You can't be messin' around talkin' to some woman or something. You got to be playing the drums, playing the chart. You've got to be right there.

A Kid Obsessed with Drums

AAJ: You grew up here in Frankford?

BB: I grew up at 4610 Hawthorne Street. Two blocks away from here.

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