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Jeff Ballard: A Life In Music

Renato Wardle By

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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 chord—Ta 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.

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