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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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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 else—doing 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?

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