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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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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 Thigpen—and 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.

JB: Yeah.

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 there—like 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?

Jeff BallardJB: 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 relationship—or 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 playing—it 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 Circus—Circus Vargas—for a few weeks too.

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