Far from being an overnight success, Butch Ballard, like many prominent figures in the music business, sprang from very humble beginnings. Born in 1918, he spent his early years in the rough and often impersonal streets of Philadelphia. But Butch grew up in a highly disciplined home, under the supervision of strict parents.
Butch first took an interest in drums at age eight, inspired by local parades. By the time he was 12, his interest in drums had developed so keenly that he constructed his own set made from discarded objects. Butch played on these drums until he was about 15, at which point his father went to a pawnshop and bought him his first set of professional drums. At this time, Butch began taking drum lessons from Professor Coles, who was as strict about music as Butch’s parents were about his home life.
At age 16, Butch got his first taste of professional playing when he sat in with Herb Thornton’s band, Ballard’s uncles, Buster Brooks and Bill Harris, were members of the band. One night during a dance at the Frankford Boys’ Club, where Thornton was playing, his uncles asked Butch to sit in and play a number. Young Butch was petrified and although he didn’t really want to, he let himself be talked into it. Shortly after that, Thornton fired his drummer and hired Butch.
Ballard went the usual route of joining the school band, but maintained professional ties outside of school. Butch and some of his friends joined a 14-piece band called the Dukes Orchestra which often made as much as one and a half to three and a half dollars per night working from nine until two.
After leaving the Dukes Orchestra in 1941, Ballard was invited to New York by Lucky Millinder. Once in New York, Butch made it a point to hang around with those established in the music business. “When I came to New York, I met these different guys that took me under their wing and said, ‘Why don’t you go over here or go over there and sit in so you can get that exposure.’ You have to get the exposure out there for the right people to hear you.”
This eventually presented Butch with his first substantial opportunity. “Big Sidney Catlett told me that Cootie Williams was forming a band like Duke Ellington’s,” remembers Ballard, “so I went down to the rehearsal hall and I saw 99 sax players, 99 trombone players—all auditioning to get the job. This drummer sat in, that drummer sat in, and then I got my shot. As luck would have it, the number he called out was “Airmail Special,” and I knew it because the Dukes used to play it. So I felt right at home. Then we went on to play some blues, and I was nervous, but after I got past the first chorus, I was okay. About two weeks later, I got a call from his office saying that I’d been hired for the job. I almost fainted.”
Butch stayed with the Cootie Williams band doing some traveling through the middle and southwestern states until he got called into the service in 1942. After being released from the Navy in 1945, Ballard returned to Philadelphia for a short time and played local clubs before going back to New York. Once in New York, he again set out to familiarize himself with the jazz music business; who was playing, who needed players and what bands were around. His routine consisted of playing until three or four a.m., then jamming ’til eight or nine that same morning, sleeping the rest of the day, and playing again that night.
While in New York, Butch worked with Arnett Cobb’s and Lucky Millinder’s band. Then he got called to do a recording date with Louis Armstrong. As Butch fondly recalls, “Louis was such a beautiful guy. All my experience with the other bands made working with him so easy. He was such a sweet man to work with. He seemed to project and instill warmth—he wanted you to be relaxed and play.”
Butch also worked with Illinois Jacquet’s band for about a year. Ballard then began to tour the country with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson in an almost non-stop touring circuit.
Between 1947 and 1948, Butch had his own band called the Butch Ballard Band. When that broke up in ’48, he joined Mercer Ellington’s band. By that time, he had already established himself as a competent and reliable jazz musician noted for his enthusiasm and technical ability. His reputation was such that when Shadow Wilson, the drummer for Count Basie’s band, left to join Woody Herman’s group, the Count personally called Butch to offer him the job. Butch accepted without hesitation and lost no time in getting out to California.
The chance to replace the great Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson was a special treat for Butch because Wilson had been his idol since Ballard’s early days in Philadelphia. Ballard maintains that no other single person had more of a direct and lasting influence on his playing ability and grasp of the percussion arts.
“He gave me some pointers. At times he would let me sit down and play drums with the band. I was learning how to read then, and getting my chops together musically. He helped me so much that when I got with the big bands I knew how to set up a figure with the brass section, how to shade and go softly with the reed section, and how to shade and get down on the piano player. It’s the difference between technique and flair. It added a little “oomph” to it. And Basie appreciated that little extra in a drummer.”
Around 1950, Basie decided to reduce his band to a sextet. At this time, Butch received a phone call from Duke Ellington. “Duke had heard about me through his son, Mercer, whom I had worked with. Duke said, ‘I’m going to Europe…would you like to go with me?’ I sputtered with shock and replied, ‘Would I like to go with you? Are you kidding me? SURE!’ So I went and it was just magnificent. I enjoyed every bit of it.
“It was great working with Ellington because you’d go on the bandstand for the first show and do it one way and then for the next show, he might change it all around. You had to be on your toes all the time because you never knew what he was going to do next.
“The similarity between Basie and Ellington is that both started off most of their numbers with a piano lead. But insofar as the music is concerned, the whole format is different. When I was with Ellington’s band, we played numbers that were much more challenging, where you had to really apply yourself musically to achieve what he wanted.
“One very important thing I learned from Ellington was to always be alert to what he was doing and keep my eyes on the bandleader at all times. Jazz is so fast and intricate that one player not paying attention can throw the entire band off. It is especially important for the drummer to be aware because he sets the pace for the rest of the band. This is something I try to instill in my students. I don’t mind telling a student something once or even twice, but if he doesn’t pick up on it by the third or fourth time, then I know he’s not paying attention.
After Ballard left the Ellington band, he played here and there with a multitude of smaller “big bands,” including Charlie Shavers, Ray Bryant, Eddie Haywood, and many others. This kept him busy for the better part of the Fifties, until he once again formed his own band called Butch Ballard and the Balladeers.
Though Ballard is at heart a jazz musician, he saw the practicality of having a band which could play any type of music. “I learned through experience,” remembers Ballard, “that if you were going to work the nice clubs, you had to have a versatile group. If you wanted to work consistently, you had to do a lot of singing and show tunes and feature everybody in the band, but not play too much jazz. Since the majority of people don’t understand or appreciate jazz, you could only shoot a little jazz in here and there, in between the other numbers.”
The Balladeers were together for about three and a half years and did quite a bit of travelling. However, as much as Ballard enjoyed touring with the Balladeers, it proved to be not quite as lucrative a venture as he had hoped. “Between taxes, agent fees, buying uniforms, travel expenses and trying to pay the guys good money—because I always wanted to surround myself with top musicians—it just didn’t work.” So Butch decided to play it smart and cut his losses. He went back to being a band member—not a bandleader.
Ballard drifted into one of the biggest society music outfits in the Philadelphia area, called The Music Associates. When he went to apply for the job, he was told to bring a resume. Not having one, he figured he’d just go down and talk to Bobby Roberts, the man doing the hiring. During the interview, Ballard said, “I see you’ve got the Encyclopedia of Jazz over there. I’m in it.” Bobby took the book down, opened it up and said, “Hey, I don’t need a resume. This is better than a resume. This is beautiful. Nothing you could tell me is any better than this.”
Ballard stayed with the Associates for twelve years, and although he eventually grew dissatisfied with the limited scope of party music, he made a lasting favorable impression on the talented Bobby Roberts. As Bobby recalls, “Butch was an exciting, inspiring part of my orchestra. Why? Because anybody who played for me had to have more than just talent—he had to have extreme talent. But aside from being a great musician, Butch was also a sincere person. You know, every musician has a certain amount of ego, but the thing that I remember most about Butch was that he was always putting other people ahead of himself. For instance, he was always the first to ask if anyone in the band needed help carrying their instrument. That’s just the type of person he is. And he was always so happy. You know, most musicians have such a serious look on their face when they’re playing their instrument. But not Butch—he always had a big smile on his face, grinning from ear to ear. You could tell that he was really having a good time with the music and that he enjoyed playing those drums more than anything else.”
But even the amount of money couldn’t compensate for the fact that Butch was losing touch with himself as a creative musician and as a jazz performer. “After a while,” Ballard recollects, “I felt deep within me that I was losing my innermost feelings because I wasn’t expressing myself. I didn’t get a chance to. Eventually, it got to the point where wanted to quit. At the end of the next pay period, I handed my notice to Bobby. I explained to him that I needed a change: ‘I’m not getting a chance to play the way I want to play. The financial part of it is great, Bob, but there’s something else to music—something that I’ve put into it all these years that I don’t want to lose. I need to make a change.’
“At that point, Bobby said, ‘I think you’re crazy.’ Well, he might have been correct. But I had other feelers out at the time. I left the band and started back into the clubs again. I was working six or seven nights a week—all jazz.”
But this was now the mid-Seventies and Ballard was no longer a young man. The demands of jazz were perhaps more of a strain than he remembered. His doctor cautioned him that since his blood pressure was higher than normal, he had better curtail some of his activities—either cut down playing every night or running around with his growing number of students. Ballard chose a moderation of the two. His gigs became less frequent and the number of his students was sculpted down to a select few.
At present, Ballard devotes the majority of his time to his students. He teaches about four to five private students daily and a group often at the Goodman studio on weekends.
The friendly and personable Ballard, who has won the respect and admiration of his peers, is also greatly admired by his students. Says one of his advanced students, “As a teacher, he’s good—real good. And the reason he’s good is because he knows what your capabilities are and he takes you one step further. In that way, music never becomes boring because he always has you reaching out for something which initially, seems impossible, but attainable through hard work. And he definitely makes you work hard! His knowledge of music and his vitality makes learning from him a real challenge.”
But would Ballard give up his playing for his students? “Truthfully. I would rather play, but economics being the way they are, a musician has to have more than one thing going. Understand, if I was just teaching all day, it would be fun because I enjoy the kids, but in order for me to let out my inhibitions, the playing part is therapy for me.”
Though Ballard has enjoyed a long life filled with many exciting events, there are still some dreams he has not yet realized. As Butch muses, “Music has been so good to me. From now on in, I’d like to devote my time to teaching and playing jazz concerts. I’d also like to be able to pick the jobs I want to play, instead of going out and working myself to death for some other guy. I’ve been to all the heights so now I hope I can continue playing jobs with guys I really enjoy working with. Would I like to retire? Retire to what? I would go crazy sitting around the house all day looking at the dumb TV. That would bore me to death. You have to keep your head active and your heart in your music. Being around your peers and working with guys who are beter than you is a challenge. It keeps you on top of things and makes you smart. If you work all the time with inferior guys, you don’t improve; you don’t grow. And it you don’t keep growing, you die…inside.
“I guess what I’d really like would be to take a tour of Europe with a nice little jazz group. And then maybe take a sabbatical to Africa because I also want to learn the various polyrhythms and logs. “And after that?” Ballard smiles reflectively, “Who knows? I’m still young.