George Ballard

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This drummer began gigging professionally in the early '40s, and could be said to have provided rhythm for a veritable Mt. Rushmore of jazz legends. Along with bassist Wendell Marshall, Butch Ballard…
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This drummer began gigging professionally in the early '40s, and could be said to have provided rhythm for a veritable Mt. Rushmore of jazz legends. Along with bassist Wendell Marshall, Butch Ballard created one of Duke Ellington's best rhythm section formations. The drummer, often credited as George Ballard, provided a similar quality of service for Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, amongst many others. His reputation set in marble, Ballard returned to his native Philadelphia to lead his own bands as well as inspire generation upon generation of younger players. In 2000, at 83 years old, Ballard was still teaching percussion at the Frankford Style Community Arts Center, where he also served on the board of directors and was described as one of the center's most energetic instructors.

Ballard's earliest bandleading employers were Bardu Ali and the incomparable Fats Waller, after which he teamed up with the amusing trumpeter Cootie Williams. In the mid-'40s, he went to work for Armstrong, followed by several years with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, a career move that meant sore arm muscles as tempos doubled and tripled, the leader sometimes pulling as many as two-dozen choruses out of a hat, or perhaps his jaw. In 1948, Mercer Ellington badgered his father into into letting the younger man start up his own band. The junior Ellington's first rhythm section consisted of Ballard and Marshall. Not one to be one-upped, father Ellington nabbed these players away for his own European tour in 1950, utilizing the incredible drum combination of Ballard and veteran player Sonny Greer. Leading up to this, Ballard also had the opportunity to provide the same sort of solid rhythms for Count Basie's big band.

Ballard worked off and on with Duke Ellington in the early '50s, and by 1954 had returned to Philadelphia. His group became in demand to back visiting jazz stars, often on the stage of the legendary Showboat club. Vocalists such as Nina Simone and Dinah Washington enjoyed the accompaniment style of Ballard's group, and the years with Davis almost put him condition to keep up with alto saxophone dynamo Sonny Stitt. Ballard also played drums for the Bobby Roberts Band as well as becoming a popular and inspirational drum instructor.