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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.

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.

Basie and the Big Bands

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.

Butch BalllardAAJ: 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.
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