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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.

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