Butch Ballard: Legendary Philadelphia Drummer

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
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. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Butch, This is Duke Ellington

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?

BB: Yes.

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.

Philadelphia Favorites

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.

Ballard at 88: Still Going Strong

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.

The Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra

AAJ: When did the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra start?

BB: I was in the starting band at the Clef Club about twelve years ago. Floyd Bracey was the bassist. I'm the oldest guy in the band.

Butch BalllardAAJ: Who writes the charts?

BB: The band leader, Leon Mitchell. He's a very fine musician. He used to play alto saxophone and some piano. Also, the Heath brothers send us some charts. Benny Golson sends us some charts—"Along Came Betty, "Blues March.

AAJ: Do you go to clubs today, like Ortliebs, to hear the guys play?

BB: Not as much as I used to. I go hear my good buddy, Mickey Roker, down at Ortliebs. After his time with Gillespie, Mickey came back to Philadelphia. He plays in his church in South Philadelphia now. He plays at Ortliebs, travels, he's still very active. And I go over to Germantown Avenue to listen to drummer Craig McIver. One of the finest drummers in Philadelphia.

[Ballard then spontaneously got up and showed me his Capitol LPs and a fine case of his recordings sent to him by the Mercury label. He has unstoppable energy. He could have gone on for the rest of the afternoon telling stories, reflecting on music, and showing me his memorabilia. He is a bundle of dynamic energy, and, even at 88, he really "swings. We stopped only because I had another appointment that evening. Guys like Ballard don't have a beginning or an end; he is like one of those long trains speeding in the night.]

AAJ: Well, Butch, I've got to head downtown now. I hate to stop you in midstream, but I've got to meet someone.

BB: Vic, thanks for coming by. Tell everyone to come hear my group at the Mozaic Club.

Selected Discography Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, The 1953 Pasadena Concert (GNP Crescendo, 2005)
Count Basie Orchestra, 1947-1949 (Classics Jazz, 2002)
Count Basie, Basie's Basement (Bluebird, 1992)
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Happy Birthday Duke! The Birthday Sessions [Box] (Laserlight, 1992)
Duke Ellington, Piano Reflections (Capitol, 1989)
Clark Terry Spacemen, Squeeze Me (Chiaroscuro, 1976) Photo Credits
Top Photo: Victor L. Schermer
Center Photo: Ben Johnson
Bottom Photo: Victor L. Schermer
About Butch Ballard
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Jazz Near Philadelphia
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.