Born: December 26, 1917 Primary Instrument: Drums
George Edward “Butch” Ballard (b. December 26, 1918) is an American jazz drummer who during his long career has played with musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Ballard was born in Camden, New Jersey and grew up in Frankford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child he followed American Legion parades near his home, focusing particularly on the drummer. When he was about 10 years old, Ballard's father bought him a set of drums from a pawnbroker and he began to take lessons for 75 cents each. He got the nickname “Butch” after Machine Gun Butch, a character in the 1930 film The Big House. He attended Northeast High School in Philadelphia. When he was 21, he married Jessie, for whom he bought a house in Philadelphia in 1950.
At around 16 years old, Ballard listened to Herb Thornton's band at the Boys Club in Philadelphia. They let him play with them, and he was invited to join a band by a man who heard him. For the following few months, he carried his drums across Philadelphia to rehearse. In 1938, Ballard started playing with Louis Armstrong's band The Dukes. He performed with them for a few years. In 1941 he began playing with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, performing with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Pearl Bailey.
During the Second World War, Ballard joined the United States Navy and served in the 29th Special Construction Battalion in Guam and the South Pacific. While serving, he played in the military band. After the war, he returned to Philadelphia and then went to New York, working with musicians including Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Eddie Vinson, Arnett Cobb and Clark Terry.
He met and became friends with drummer Shadow Wilson who played with the Count Basie Orchestra. In the late 1940s, Wilson left Basie's orchestra to join Woody Herman's band and Basie invited Ballard to California replace him.
In 1950, Ballard received a telephone call from Duke Ellington who had heard of Ballard from his son Mercer. Ellington invited him to join his band on a European tour and Ballard sailed to France. Regular Ellington drummer Sonny Greer was proving to be increasingly unreliable due to his drinking, and Ellington hired Ballard as a backup. He played with musicians including Harry Carney, Paul Gonzalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Billy Strayhorn, Kay Davis and Chubby Kemp and Wendell Marshall. After the tour, Ellington asked him to permanently replace Greer, but Ballard declined, not wanting to change his drumming method to suit Ellington. Ellington, wanting a drummer who used double bass drums, hired Louis Bellson instead. Ballard continued to play with Ellington in 1952 and 1953 and made recordings with him, such as “Satin Doll”.
In the 1960s, Ballard began leading his own band in Philadelphia. He has played with many musicians during his career including John Coltrane, Fats Waller, Freddie Green, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Clark Terry, Emmett “Rev” Berry, Willie Cook, Cat Anderson, Arnett Cobb, Lucky Millinder, Bootsie Barnes, Bob Dorsey, Eddy Vincent and Mercer Ellington.
Ballard became a music teacher in the mid-1980s and sees about 12 students a week. He plays with the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra.