Up and Coming
Butch Baron was raised on Long Island, New York, but has spent the last few years on the West Coast. He has taken the seeming “adversity” of being a drummer with only one leg and turned it into an “opportunity.” He is an active teacher and performer and is currently working on building a big-band of “handicapped” performers who can “really play.”
BB: I got interested in playing from seeing drummers. I wanted to learn how to play and I figured I’d better go to a teacher first, and get some lessons and opinions, before I got into this and found out that I didn’t have the talent. So I went to several teachers and naturally, having an artificial leg, the first 5 guys said to forget about playing, because I’d never be able to play a hi-hat or a second bass drum. I was a little discouraged, but I kept going on, asking about teachers, and finally I went to a Sam Ash store and they gave me the name of a guy, Tony Shay, which led to 15 years of friendship.
I called him up and he said, “Come on over.” I did and he said, “I’ll teach you if you’re going to work hard. You’ll learn to play a hi-hat. We’ll work on it together, and then we’ll go on to the 2 bass drums. If you’re willing to do the best you can, we’ll do it together.” So I started playing gigs in clubs when I was 13. My first job lasted a year and a half at the same club. At that time I was making $175 a week! So, I felt like I was a millionaire. One thing led to another, and Tony turned me on to more and more people for gigs, and I’ve continued playing right up until today.
Tony, being a great teacher/player himself, insisted I learn how to read. Normally at a young age, all you want to do is play. So I had been doing some studio work in N.Y. I decided to come out to California and I’ve been gigging out here for the past 2 1/2 years, and doing studio work in San Diego and L.A., which is always increasing as time goes on. I’m teaching, practicing and working 6 to 7 nights a week all the time and still studying. Right now I’m looking for another teacher.
I’ve been in contact with Roy Burns, Louis Bellson, and Les DeMerle. Another guy who’s been very helpful is Hal Blaine. He’s just a sweetheart. They’re all very supportive of a couple of things I’m doing. One project I’m trying to put together is an all handicapped person big-band, to tour the country. We hope to reach a lot of people with this band across the country; handicapped musicians as well as handicapped people who are not musicians. I want to put together a quality band. With the people being handicapped, it has to be better than the average band because I don’t want people thinking, “Oh, these guys are handicapped, and they’re pretty good.” I want people to not see any handicap and think, “Hey! The band is dynamite.”
I’m also working with Slingerland. They’ve been very helpful with publicity and promotion. I’ve been doing clinics in the California area in the local school systems and I’m also working on a project with Howie Oliver at the Pro Drum Shop, in conjunction with Slingerland, on a special bass drum pedal that I’ll be using for my left leg. The back of the pedal will be set up with springs, almost the same way the front of the pedal is set up. There will be no heel action. It will be a straight-across suspended footboard, and the whole pedal will go up and down.
I know a lot of drummers who are interested in the product—drummers who don’t have the same problem as I do, which is not really a problem. I think the pedal will benefit players like myself as well as other guys. Many people have told me they think it might be good for drummers who play strictly with their toes.
SF: Did you get discouraged when those first 5 teachers were telling you to forget about playing drums?
BB: I’ve always been the kind of guy that never took “no” for an answer. Being stubborn is an inherent quality. If I feel I’m capable of doing something, I go after it 100%. For instance, I try to work on my technique, reading, and all the facets of a well-rounded player. Not just sitting down and playing the same riffs all the time. The guys younger than myself are growing up with rock or hard rock, or top-40 disco, or country-western, and I find that many of them don’t read and they can only play one style. So developing myself takes constant work and discipline. If you have that control, I believe you can overcome just about any boundary in your daily life, as well as in your drumming. I’ve always pushed very hard, and Tony Shay built my confidence very, very much.
SF: How did he do that?
BB: For my left leg, which is the one I lost, he had me work on many, many different pages of exercises playing first on 2 and 4 learning the basic hi-hat. Then he had me play quarter notes, then eighth notes, then sixteenth notes, triplets . . . all kinds of variations. Through that I developed a good quick left foot. I can play just about anything at any speed and keep it up without getting tired at all. Then we worked on odd time hi-hat, syncopation, and keeping the hi-hat going all during my solos. We did solo patterns playing off the beat with the hi-hat. We really worked on it quite a bit. Now I have complete command over where I want to put that hi-hat.
I play a lot with records and I work out with charts daily. I have about 300 charts. I practice set routines, technique, different rhythms, brushes, and try to keep a balanced diet of drumming. Not put all my dollars into one bank. Today the market is so varied that a guy like Hal Blaine can go into the studio and play anything that is required of him. That’s my idea of a well-rounded drummer. Tony Shay is another one. He can go in and read anything. Then masters like Louis Bellson, Roy Burns, and Les, they’ve just been terrific as far as inspiration is concerned. They always had kind words, and would always take the time to sit and talk and take an interest. They’ve been very helpful.
SF: Have you started putting the big band together?
BB: Yeah. It’s very slow because what I’m running into is a lot of players who would love to do it, but are just not ready to do a big-band thing. The experience is not there. I want the band to be good and strong. I don’t believe for myself or for any other handicapped person that they should be given any sympathy, or any longer string than the next guy. They are human beings like everybody else. If they have a problem, they’ve got to do the best they can with it. I believe we’re all equal. Whoever is qualified most for the job is going to get it. So I’m hoping that through efforts like this article, and through people that are interested in helping get this off the ground, that it will happen. It is very needed! There are many handicapped musicians out there that would love a little recognition, I think. Not so much in sympathy, but insofar as, “Hey, I can play. Just because I’m in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I can’t play a horn.” I think that the band will get off the ground, and that it can do a lot of good. Musically it will reach many people, handicapped or not. That’s the object of it. We want to go around the country and do a lot of benefits for different handicapped organizations. Everybody enjoys music. I don’t know many people that don’t. I’m anxious to do it.
SF: Where are you going to look for players for the band?
BB: I’ve been talking to people all over the country. I have people in different handicapped organizations looking. A couple of people on the Governor’s Committee for the Handicapped are looking. We did a benefit for them with my present group and got some people through that. But through those channels we were not reaching the musicians that play all the time. I’m hoping that the people who pick up MD might say, “Hey, I know a guy who would be interested in doing that.” We’re trying to take as many avenues as we can.
SF: Will the band be performing original material?
BB: We’re going to start off doing charts from many established big-bands. If the band is good enough, hopefully, we’ll have some good writers in it.
SF: Do you write?
BB: A little bit. I’m more concerned with getting the band together. I’ll leave the writing to the people who are really on top of what’s happening.
SF: Is this something you’ve wanted to do a long time?
BB: Yes. It’s been in the works about 4 years.
SF: Do you do clinics for handicapped kids?
BB: I’ve done a couple. Most of them have been in the school system and in private places, where they’re free. Slingerland has given me a lot of publicity material and giveaways to attract people. People like Louie, Roy, and Slingerland sure help, because I don’t have a big name yet. These people do, and they’re very willing to help, so if people can be attracted by their name, and believe in this project like some of these people do, I think that’ll help even more.
I enjoy the clinics because the kids today don’t seem to get a rounded education in some of the schools as far as percussion and drum set. So when I do a clinic I try to explain from a basic on up to an advanced level about drums and what is going on, and the kind of products that are available. I try to make the kids aware of the drummers that are doing it today. I believe a clinic should be a learning process, not something where a drummer plays everything he knows in 45 minutes and people say, “Wow, he was great and fast,” and that’s it! I want the kids to feel that they’ve walked out of my clinics with something they can take home and work on.
SF: Are you working with any handicapped kids in your own private teaching?
BB: Yeah. I have two here. One of them is very good, very interested. The other guy is a little bit shy because of his handicap, I guess. He’s only 11, and I think he’s afraid that people will see him on a drumset and make fun of him. He’s overcoming that. Recently, he’s been talking about getting together with some of the neighborhood kids who play different instruments. I told him that’s fantastic. He said, “Well, the kids aren’t real good. They’re like me, they’re just beginning.” I told him it didn’t matter. Today, you have to get out and play with everybody you can in every musical situation, to get every kind of musical experience you possibly can. So, his attitude is becoming better and better.
SF: Is it tough to work with someone with that attitude?
BB: It might be for someone else, but I went through the same kind of thing. I’ve always enjoyed working with handicapped children. People that are 25 to 40 already seem to feel that, “Well, I have an affliction.” I find that the younger children are not so aware of their handicap. When I teach handicapped kids, I don’t even see their handicap. I don’t see it at all! I treat them as just another student or another person. If their handicap comes in the way, we adjust to it, but still I don’t emphasize on, “Well, you’re handicapped, so you’ve got to do this.” I try to do everything the normal way and do it the best possible way they can. I’ve had a lot of success working with handicapped kids.
SF: How do you develop a positive attitude for yourself and your students?
BB: Being in contact and being friends with people like Hal Blaine, Louis Bellson and Roy Burns . . . they’re always an inspiration to me. They’re terrific people on top of being great players. So I don’t look at the next guy and get down because he might be a little better than me in some respect. There is always someone better than you. I tell the kids not to worry about it and that you can learn from people who are excellent players. The object is not to get out there and beat everybody out. The object is to fulfill yourself. Ask, “How good do I want to be?” If you have that attitude, you don’t have to worry about the next guy. Your practice, dedication, and your patience to the instrument pays off. We can do anything we want to if we discipline ourselves, if we have the mind for it. I feel the biggest trait is consistency.
I feel drummers should study with as many different people as they can. No one can practice for you, and no one can instill discipline in you. You have to do it yourself. All the young drummers should keep their minds open to every possible kind of music. Go to clinics, concerts, watch TV shows with a lot of music, and listen to different kinds of records. Consume everything (musically) that you can and try to retain as much of it as possible. That helps maintain a good, healthy drum attitude. Playing the same licks everyday and listening to the same rock record everyday does not get a person to be real progressive and creative. Everybody falls into the trap of playing set licks, especially when playing with one group, and playing the same material night after night. Always keep your ears open, and most importantly don’t worry about the guy next to you. You can learn from anybody, no matter what level they are at. The most important things are discipline, practice, and consistency.
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