For some jazz musicians, it seems as though they explode onto the scene virtually from the first day they pick up their instrument, and then proceed to land a huge name gig and the rest is history (or they are, after their 15 minutes). Other musicians spend a lifetime building and honing their craft. One gig leads to the next, one experience preparing them for the following one. Such is the case for master drummer Jeff Ballard.
Ballard's gigs have ranged from pianist Chick Corea, bassist Ray Brown, and composer/arranger Maria Schneider to bassists Avishai Cohen and Ben Allison, Circus Vargas and, for the past couple of years, Brad Mehldau's trio. His special brand of honed musical instincts is in demand, and for good reason. There are tours coming up with his collaborative trio Flyfeaturing saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Larry Grenadierand with Mehldau's trio featuring guitarist Pat Metheny. There's a new record from Metheny/Mehldau and a new record in the works for Fly as well.
Jeff Ballard is as busy as they come. Why? Jeff Ballard makes all the right choices, at the right momentmusical and otherwise.
All About Jazz: To begin with, where are you from?
Jeff Ballard: I was born in southern California but I grew up in Santa Cruz, California.
AAJ: The Bay Area.
JB: About half hour south from San Jose, exactly.
AAJ: What were some of your earliest musical experiences? How did music figure into your childhood?
JB: Music came into my life through my father who played some drums back when he was in the army. He has a great love of jazz, but he wasn't playing professionally or anything. It was just his having all that music around you know. He had a wide interest in music. But most of the stuff I heard through him were things like Count Basie's big band or a lot of Oscar Peterson and some Duke [Ellington]. And also some Brazilian music too. He was really into Sergio Mendes' Brasil '66 (A&M, 1966) and things like that at the time. That kind of music was always of around.
AAJ: Was there a lot of music going on in the town where you grew up?
JB: Santa Cruz, yeah it really started coming into my consciousness strongly as something I wanted to do, later on in high school. So I started taking lessons when I was, what, a sophomore in high school. So I took a year of private lessons.
AAJ: Is high school when you really got serious about playing the drums?
JB: Yeah, the seriousness turned at that point. Like making the decision whether or not to do it. I liked baseball a lot so I was playing a lot. But because of the way it was with the coach I couldn't miss any practices and I had these drum lessons once a week which were important to me too. So I actually did make that choice and say, "Well, let me go with this instead."
AAJ: That's a rough choice for a kid to make.
JB: Yeah. I think that I didn't have that strong drive of competitiveness, that kind of turned me off, that hyped-up competitive streak. I like a good game but this didn't have that to it.
AAJ: With music there is certainly more room to express your individuality.
JB: [laughs] Yeah, that's for sure.
AAJ: Even as a kid. What with the teams, the coach/drill sergeant thing, it was certainly the case with me as kid as well.
JB: Yeah, and also I felt like sometimes there was this....I don't know if it was a belittling. Like you said, this hard, regimented thing.
AAJ: They feel like they have to beat you down to build you back up.
JB: Something like that, yeah. And the band was much warmer, you know, the band room had a much warmer feeling.
AAJ: Probably smelled better too.
JB: Well, probably so yeah. [laughs]
AAJ: Well, how old were you when you got your first set of drums?
JB: Let's see. The first real set, I would say fourteen, fifteen, something like that.
AAJ: Now when you first got that set of drums, who was the first drummer that influenced you.
JB: I remember watching my dad play at the house, but Joe Morello was the first drummer that I really heard that really stuck to me. Its was from Dave Brubeck's, Time Further Out (Columbia, 1961). And there was a moment in this one cut, "Far More Drums" it's called, which was pretty much just a head and then all drum solo. And there was one moment in particular that was real strong. Joe hit the cymbal, it was an open cymbal hit and then as he choked it, he went up on and into the bell of his cymbal. So it was like the cymbal made this curve, it had this nice morphing sound to it and I thought it was really hip. So I remember that. Just getting really turned on by that. And the solo itselfall tom toms. He wasn't playing with the snares on either on that solo. It was exciting, real hip.
Plus listening to lots of Sonny Payne with Basiethat was just very exciting. And I heard a lot of Ed Thigpen too. Those are some great first impressions of drummers. Also, another record that was very cool for me was a live [vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs big band record with Mel Lewis playing drums. I would play along with all of these records. Super great.
AAJ: So these were records in your Dad's record collection, not so much ones that you went out and purchased yourself?
JB: Exactly. I was floating with what was there. That and one other record that my grandfather had of Sinatra and Basie, Sinatra at The Sands (Reprise, 1966), and that was really great too. And again that was Sonny Payne on drums.
AAJ: So were you attracted to vocal jazz? A lot of kids who connect with jazz are attracted more instrumental jazz featuring a lot of drums. But with Sinatra and Basie's Sinatra At The Sands, that record would certainly stick out and be more unique for a drummer.
JB: Yeah, but I think because it was a big dose of the big band arrangements of Quincy Jones. And Frank is what you'd call a real musician/singer. It was the instrumental side of it all that was really attractive to me. Later I was turned onto to the band Chicago. That was hip. And then there was a moment of listening to KISS a lot. James Taylor. Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jim Croce. Though most of all of that is great. Still it was something about the hipness that was in jazz. Something else was calling with that, you know?
AAJ: So right out of the gate with jazz music and then you pretty much stayed in that vein ever since.
JB: Yeah, and by changing schools a few times early on, maybe three or four times we moved and they'd say you know, "Well, what did you do in the last school?" and I'd say, "Well, I was in band." So the music stayed with me and I liked the people that were musicians, I mean they were all my friends.
AAJ: How encouraging were you parents with music?
JB: Oh great. They were letting me go. My dad had the mantra, "You know you have to practice. If you want to do this you have to practice. If you want the drums and you wanna do this, if you want the lessons, you have to practice. They were very supportive, though my mom was a bit nervous about my making a living doing it you know. But that wasn't even in my mind back then, it was just doing it and having fun.
AAJ: I know its a cliché question, but how old were you when you realized "this is it"? I mean there must have come a time when you thought, "All right, I am gonna do this." Or was it more organic, did it unfold naturally, with you falling into it?
JB: Yeah, it just came about gradually at first. There was a time when I got to play with people and got paid for playing. That was something like, "Wow, this is cool, let's keep going. Then the seriousness hit later and I really took playing much more seriously. It became more than just making a living at it. It was more of this is a serious thing"I've got a hold of, can't let go now. It's like a sleeping tiger, you know? You've got a hold of it and you can't really let go now, you could wake it and it'll turn on you. [laughs]
AAJ: Right on. So the artist pursuance side of it really came into play then.
JB: Yes, I didn't have an artistic statement yet, but the animal, the organism of it, was very intriguing, very exciting to me.
AAJ: When you got to the college level did you have any musical experiences then?
JB: Yeah, there is a leap over there. There was a junior college, Cabrillo College, in Santa Cruz. It was a two year community college. And so while I was a junior and senior in high school I was also playing in a big band at Cabrillo. There was a great teacher there, Ray Brown. A trumpet player. And so I was kind of straddling things in high school: the sports, swimming and playing baseball, and then there was also the band and orchestra and the jazz band. Every Tuesday and Thursday I'd go to the college and go play there. Then it started to dawn on Me, "This is it! There were better charts at the college than at the high school and we read a lot. It was more challenging. There were great teachers there, Ray Brown's wife, Sue Brown led the chamber orchestra. Another great teacher who was there, Lyle Cruz, was very good with the way he dealt with the students, treating them more like professionals.
AAJ: Now where was your head with influential drummers, heroes, or idols at the time?
JB: At that point Steve Gadd was a big one. And then Ray hipped me to Four and More (Columbia, 1964) and My Funny Valentine (Columbia, 1964), [trumpeter] Miles Davis with [drummer] Tony [Williams]. And still Ed Thigpen was a big one. Max Roach also was in there as one of the first modern drummers that I encountered. Tony and Max were the big ones and Art Blakey also.
AAJ: Four and More is a mind-blowing record.
JB: Mind-blowing record! That changed my head, you know. And then I saw this drummer from San Francisco, Eddie Marshall, play and he was wonderful. He had that Tony-esque way of playing so I got to actually see it going on: all four limbs doing something elsedoing something different from each other and that was just something, that blew me away. So apart from playing weddings, etc., early on, there was one friend who introduced me to some Cuban musicians and so I really started playing that type of music a lot early on too. With that band we were going around and playing in county fairs, that was a fun. Like a little mini taste of the road, you know?
AAJ: So you'd go on the road for a day or a couple days?
JB: Two days, three days, up and down California.
AAJ: With these Cuban musicians right?
JB: Yeah, with the Cuban cats, Chicanos, Mexicanos. The percussionist was Cuban.
AAJ: Was it a whole group of cats or was it just one band?
JB: One band, one particular band with some guys who I am still friends with.
AAJ: What tunes would you guys play?
JB: All original stuff.
AAJ: All original stuff? Did you have a background in Afro Cuban drumming at the time?
JB: No, that band was my background. That was where I grabbed all that information. It took me about a year to figure out whatever it is that was about the clave, you know. They'd start it in the middle of the phrase, in the middle of the clave, and I'd have to trick myself you know. I'd say "1-2-1-2-3-4" Mentally turn my "1" around for a long time because sonically, melodically, the "1 sounded in one place and it was really harmonically speaking, two beats later. So it took me a minute but we played a lot and they were so cool, they helped me out quite a bit.
AAJ: Wow. That sounds like a very fortuitous experience for a young drummer to have.
JB: Yeah. You could put that heading over everything. I feel incredibly lucky, you know. All the way through and up till now. What I heard first with [trumpeter] Mel [Lewis] and [Joe] Morello and Ed Thigpenand also early on this great Brazilian music, super rich and soulful, [singer] Milton Nascimento, [Sergio] Mendes. So I didn't hear so much of a corny side of the music but a soulful side of the music.
AAJ: You heard the real side of it.
AAJ: Were you listening to any Afro Cuban music at the time?
JB: With those guys, yeah. Stuff like Irakere and Los Van Van.
AAJ: So did you get into Changuito's drumming a lot?
JB: Yeah, a bit, but still I didn't have an overview you know, of what this guy had done. Enrique Pla was the drummer with Irakere. That's something I had to get together because the band was playing that kind of music all the time, either on their own or though a boom box, and you know it had to seep in.
AAJ: So growing up and being surrounded by all this music, was it all presented to you in boxes or categories or was it all just music. Were some things presented as "legit" and other things as "street" music?
JB: Right. No it wasn't so defined except concerning the parts to play. With that Afro Cuban band it also had a fusion of rock and funk inside of it too. There was an electric guitarist who was truly wild and a keyboard player. We were trying to play some of that Irakere music, or that flavor of music anyway. The leader wrote his own stuff, he played water pipes, guitar, flute. It was pretty wide open but it still had that distinct Cuban, or Latino flavor of course because there was percussion and the bass player was playing tumbao parts, but they weren't studied cats. They were street cats or self-taught players. They came homemade in a way, homemade and pretty damn open to experimentation in the music.
AAJ: Now do you feel like you're more out of collegiate learning or more just picking things up here and therelike you said a "street cat" who kind of put it together himself; homemade?
JB: I think a lot of it was that and then later on going backwards I analyzed it myself. I took a couple of lessons with one guy who could spell it out a little bit, but really putting it all together is really a homemade brew.
AAJ: That self-developed individualism really stands out.
JB: I think the lead for this that pulled me off in that direction was going after sounds rather than patterns, you know. I was still trying to figure out these patterns and play cascara with one hand and then a conga part with the other hand. But I was more interested in thinking that, "This sound is good, so I am gonna keep this, it sounds like the heel of a dancer's boot; and that sound is good and I am gonna keep that sound because it sounds like a hand clap or the side of a conga drum, and then to use all of them accordingly. So this just evolved into a concept as I was playing them, putting them into context; by playing them as if these sounds were individual players playing their parts freely. At the beginning I think I was blindly digging this and that sound"Let me use this. So I was very lucky. I think coming from that place that open-ended approach really kept it like a 360 degree potential of putting stuff together.
AAJ: Did you play in rock bands as a kid?
JB: I played in a blues band but not so many rock bands. More blues bands and funk bands. I played in a cover band for a while, you know, where we played top 40 tunes. I had to sing on a couple tunes and play at the same time, you know. I sang some Kool And The Gang, and some Stray Cats.
AAJ: Stray Cats? You sang one of their tunes?
JB: Yeah, I think "I'm Gonna Rock This Town and Kool and the Gang's "Reggae Dancin' and some others. I remember being pretty embarrassed doing that.
AAJ: I can't even talk and play the drums at the same time, let alone sing!
JB: It was hard bro, let me tell ya![laughs]
AAJ: That's a whole separate set of independence right there.
JB: Yeah, and it wasn't my favorite thing but it was OK. I'm glad I did it.
AAJ: Yeah. So that Latin group was happening while you were at Cabrillo?
JB: That was happening in high school and into Cabrillo. That was going on for quite a few years. It wasn't the main band I was playing with but it was one of them. The other bands I was playing with were coming out of college. I played in a group that played gigs which are called "casuals" or "club dates"; in Boston they call them "General Business."
AAJ: So what happened after Cabrillo was over? Were you there for a full two years?
JB: After high school I continued going to Cabrillo and studied music theory. I was in the orchestra there. I studied arranging with Ray. And that's kind where more of that academic side was coming in. Also in high school I was learning, you know, snare solos and trying out for state bands and things like that. And then leaving college I got a gig playing on a cruise ship. I came back three months later and was playing around town. In fact, I'm still playing will some of those same guys today. Also very important for me back then was my hookup with an amazing pianist, Smith Dobson. Yeah, I met him when I was about sixteen or seventeen. And that guy was amazing. He's dead now, he died in a car accident not too many years ago. Very tragic.
AAJ: Was he your age? I'm not even aware of who he is.
JB: No. He was like an older brother or, better said, an uncle you know? He was the most warm-hearted guy. Really amazing cat. He was playing with [vibraphonist] Bobby Hutcherson for quite a while. He was from Sacramento. Super talented natural player... so every Tuesday we'd go to this club where he played duo and I'd sit in with him and his bassist and we'd play trio. I really grooved the most there with him.
AAJ: With all the piano players you've played with, you've kind of become the piano trio drummer. Did the gig with Smith Dobson help with that?
JB: Yeah, I think a lot of it came from that relationshipor just circumstances.
AAJ: So you did the cruise ship thing and then you were still playing in town with Smith Dobson.
JB: Yeah, I came back from playing the cruise and that was about the time, or maybe I had met them before, anyway, I met Larry Grenadier and his brother [trumpeter] Phil Grenadier. We were playing in a group with a saxophonist, Harvey Weinapel. We also had our own group and were just jamming a lot . I had known [drummer] Kenny Wollesen, a great drummer, from my home town. [Saxophonist] Donny McCaslin is from Santa Cruz as well. So like you said earlier, there were a lot of opportunities to play music. It was pretty rich out there.
AAJ: Now were these guy in San Francisco or were they in Santa Cruz?
JB: The Grenadiers were up close to San Francisco up north and I wanted to make of move there, up to the city. I was still behind the mountains in Santa Cruz and playing in the local scene.
AAJ: When did you make the jump to San Francisco?
JB: I went to San Francisco in '86. I graduated high school in '81.
AAJ: What was it like? Did you have to really fight to break into the scene?
JB: Not so much. Like everywhere in the world, there are circles of players who get together because of their likes and dislikes, gravitating towards each other; you find your place by following that musical calling.
I had met Larry first I think in '82 or something like that, at a [Jamey] Aebersold camp. And I had gone there as a kind of cover because there wasn't a drummer that year able to play in the top combo. They didn't have someone good enough so they asked me to come in to help them out and that's when I met Larry and another brother Grenadier: Steve. He was a great guitarist. He's not a musician now, not a working musician at any rate. That was a serious hookup with Larry back then. I've known him and have been playing with him now for about twenty years. We have a band together with saxophonist Mark Turner, called Fly.
I learned almost as much from him, a contemporary, as from Smith, an elder, just by hanging and playing, really. I mean he's mature beyond his years as a musician. He was playing with [saxophonists] Charles McPherson and Stan Getz, and Joe Henderson at a very young age. He had all of this experience, and so with much listening in the car driving around and our hanging out playingit was a really great time then. But the idea was to go to New York one day you know, somewhere in the mind. But I didn't wanna go from Santa Cruz to New York straight away. I thought it would be a little overwhelming. So I Figured, "Let me go to San Francisco first and live away from that small town and see what's going here."
It was a great time for me, a great couple years in San Francisco where I was playing pretty free actually, mostly for myself in the garage of course. But looking back on it now I see how it was super personal, meaning the playing was free not only in the classic sense of playing freely, but that there wasn't really any set kind of style either. We were a makeup of all that stuff that I've talked about. Something made up from all of these musicians on record or playing live. Different cultures, different sounds. That was the scene with those cats at that point. I was listening to a lot of [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman, [drummers] Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell and [Paul] Motian, While at the same time [saxophonist] Steve Coleman with Five Elements, or listening to [drummer] Omar Hakim with [singer] Sting's band and Weather Report and [bassist] Jaco [Pastorius'] Word Of Mouth (Warner Bros., 1981) [Saxophonist John Col]Trane too. I discovered Crescent (Impulse!, 1964) around that time. All that stuff was coming into me. And at one point I was playing in a CircusCircus Vargasfor a few weeks too.
AAJ: Wow. What was that like?
JB: That was cool. I came in when they were just at the point of changing from a live band to taped music. So I played the last few gigs with the band, which was kind of fun. You have three rings with three different acts in them and you're playing, you know, a tune from say [trumpter] Maynard Ferguson, or the James Bond theme, or a cover of maybe Toto, "Rosanna. Some really up tune, real energetic tune. And in the middle of the tune you would have to be hitting accents with the juggler who's juggling something like fifteen Frisbees in a huge arc, you know, and as he grabs each one, while we're playing the tune you gotta grab each moment of the drama with a cymbal crash. Fun. Then right in the middle of the tune the band would stop, which was because the act was finished and would play some major chordTa DA. It didn't matter which major chord it was either. The leader would yell out right at the last moment which chord and we would hit it. Near the end of it all, I was the last player on the gig, sitting inside a trailer in the back, outside the tent watching three video cameras, one for each ring. They still needed me because they couldn't set up things, automate things, like the snare drum roll as the tight rope walker starts walking across and the beating of the bass drum every time the guy would make a step, you know? I hated that part actually because the cat didn't have a net and I was petrified of seeing this guy fall, you know. Deep.
So all of that was going on and I was still playing around San Francisco. Every now and then doing something with the better musicians in town, you know, growing slowly.
AAJ: Slowly working your way up. So when did you decide to go to New York?
JB: Some friends of mine called me up and said [singer/pianist] Ray Charles was looking for a drummer. That was when I was about twenty-three, twenty-four, something like that. And I went down to Los Angeles to audition. I wasn't really sure about it because I had heard how he was rough on the drummers or basically on whoever was in his band. But then I saw him at the Monterey Jazz Festival and thought, "Man gimme some of that!" So I went down there and got the gig and played with him for a little more than two-and-a-half years.
AAJ: What was your audition like with Ray?
JB: It was cool. You go down to LA to his studio. The same studio he's had forever, RPM studios, and there are about eight other drummers there. I was really the only guy there who could read and had a decent enough groove. Whereas the other cats either had a good groove but they couldn't read or vice versa. Plus, because I came from that Basie side, and he really liked Basie's band, I fit in pretty well I guess. That was some high, high shit playing with him. That's the only genius I've really encountered, you know. I mean there are brilliant guys but this guy was magically genius. It was astounding every night.
AAJ: I have heard stories about [drummer] Ed Shaughnessy not wanting to play with him because he was rude or came down hard on other musicians. Was it just because he expected perfection because that's what he brought to the table?
JB: Yeah, he was kind of a hard old school cat. So yeah there were those moments you know. But most of the time it was very cool. Nothing said, everything's cool. Great. Of course there were a couple times you know. One of the very first gigs [laughs] "the open drum solo moment in the set. The band would play a few tunes out front before Ray would come out. So during this drum solo, which was open, a cadenza at the end of the tune, I'm just playing and playing, doing whatever I'm feeling you know? "Doing my thing. So I finish up and we end the tune. After the gig I get this, "Mr. C. wants to see you. So I go back into his dressing room and he says, "Look man, I want thirty seconds in, thirty seconds in the middle, and then thirty seconds out, and then you're done, boom. Okay man? [laughs] So that was something of a spanking! Or there was another time, we're playing this groove tune and the audience is clapping along, good vibes, and all of a sudden he's cranking up his keyboard and just ripping the groove out of my hands. He calls me in the back afterwards and says, "Follow me, don't follow the audience." So there were some things. But underneath it I could easily recognize a genuine care for the music only. He was totally selflessly interested in just that, you know. He was just possessed and obsessed. When he opens his mouth and starts to play this bubble encapsulates you and you're lost inside of it. He's got you. It didn't matter how tired you were.
AAJ: How big was the band at the time?
JB: Huge. It was twenty-five people or so. Five singers, an organ, guitar, bass, drums, five saxophones, four or five 'bones, and five trumpets too.
AAJ: Wow. That's a huge band.
JB: Yeah, and I'd see them, be with them, every day for seven or eight months at a shot. Long touring, you know? Never touching home. Old school trench work.
AAJ: Where did you guys tour?
JB: All over the planet.
AAJ: Was that your first big tour thing?
JB: That was the first big, big tour thing yeah.
AAJ: Now what about the cues Ray Charles used? I have heard that he had a special way of cueing the musicians.
JB: Well, I mean for the drums, the drummer is the liaison between him and the band really. So I had the best seat because you needed to see his feet. He'd conduct the groove, the shape of the groove or the tempo with his feet. He'd always be stomping out what he wanted. So you had to make sure you were watching him at all times more or less. And if he felt that you weren't watching, he would do something that would let him know whether or not you are looking at him, you know. Yeah, I'd watch his body, I mean I'd watch his feet but I ended up watching his whole body mostly. It was just great to absorb that because he was the real, real deal you know.
He could swing at the slowest tempo and that's one of the hardest things in the world to do. You could drive a truck through each beat, you know, and it would just swing so hard. It was amazing, amazing man!
So I did that for like I said a couple two-and-a-half years. That was pretty much touring all year long. Eight months on the road with the big band and then during the off months we played on the weekends. Playing a different book. And that was only with the bass player [Darren Solomon], the guitarist [Kenny Carr]), myself and Ray. We'd pick up an orchestra and play pops concerts all over the place.
AAJ: Did you have to relocate to LA for this gig?
JB: No, I stayed up in San Francisco but I wasn't home that much for those couple of years. And then in '90 I came to New York. I could have stayed another year with Ray I think and maybe I should have because it was very deep but I was kinda anxious so I came into New York. I didn't have much bread really at all, you know. A couple thousands of dollars and a car and a place to crash. I didn't even have an apartment yet so I stayed with a friend, a trumpet player named Robbie Kwok.
AAJ: You just went out there?
JB: Yeah and kinda just went for it.
AAJ: I meant to ask you about the Ray Charles movie [Ray]. Did you see that?
JB: I saw some of it. I came in in the middle of it after watching The Incredibles or something like that, and I saw the last half. Jamie Foxx was astounding, right on the money. But some of the stuff they did with the movie was with the stamp of Hollywood, which was boring to me. It was touching a lot on the drama of his drug abuse and his relationships with his wife and his girls and all this. Maybe the beginning of the movie had a little more music to it. I would have liked to have seen a little more of that. They nailed a few things though. Like Ray's manager was very well-portrayed.
AAJ: So they Hollywood-ized the story of Ray Charles. That's unfortunate, but not really surprising. So they sensationalized the drugs and other negative aspects of his life?
JB: Some of it. Yeah, sensationalized it. They milked that cinematically. Of course it's a big part of what he went through but there were a lot of other things they could have done.
AAJ: Yeah it's like Charles Mingus' book Beneath The Underdog Rumor has it the publisher cut out all the music and just left the sex and the drugs in. That's too bad.
JB: Yeah it's funny, you know, most people go for that, yeah like you said, sensationalism or the mud you know.
AAJ: Instead of the heart of it, the music.
JB: Yeah, and I wonder if it is because they think people can't think. I don't know.
AAJ: Going for the lowest common denominator.
JB: Playing down to the folks yeah, I don't appreciate that.
AAJ: There are a lot of people who make their whole career out of shocking people.
JB: Yep. That seems like an easier thing to do than building complexity of character.
AAJ: When you first moved to New York you didn't have any gigs or anything going on?
JB: Nothing really. Well, when I first got in I started playing on Sundays at the Village Gate with a pianist named Herman Foster. A blind pianist, again, who died not too many years ago. He was playing with this singer named Lodi Carr and we'd do just piano, drums and her. Through Herman, I got to play with [saxophonist] Lou Donaldson for a minute and that was great. Wow! All of a sudden I'm in it and going on the road with Lou. And here Lou really helped. That's where I learned that playing four on the floor with the bass drum has something serious about it, you know, quarter notes on the bass drum. Because up until that time I was really focusing all the time and the groove I had in my head into my right hand and actually right to the tip of the stick. Really pinpointing that groove at the tip. And really, it's not there at all. It's this huge flat horizon line that's a tempo and a groove.
There is something like the feeling of the pulse coming up from your legs and in from your arms into the center of your body and in that way I had this real balance happening. All of a sudden there was a realization of this balance. So it wasn't anymore like, "Ooh, let me nail that point." It wasn't like hitting the dots, connecting the dots, but not keeping the time like a metronome's ticking; it was more like drawing a line all the way through. Great lesson there through Lou.
AAJ: Had you ever played four-on-the-floor up to that point? I mean you listened to Basie a lot when you were a kid.
JB: Yeah but I didn't realize that, you know, and the teachers I had taken lessons with didn't really put that up in there as something to digest.