Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, Jeff Ballard remembers how he would lay in bed as a child listening to his father play music on weekends. He loved the tunes from Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sergio Mendez, among other outstanding records. When Ed Thigpen brushed the snare at incredible speeds, it triggered something inside of him.
Jeff Ballard recalls the Basie Big band‘s rumbling as they shouted in the chorus, which would disappear into some silent dancing situation. To him, the sound from the drum, percussion, and voices was so cool he wanted to be part of it. And that is perhaps all the exposure he needed to be the great musician we all talk about today.
Many drummers have tried but never became as successful as Ballard. He went to the community college where he studied music theory and was a major band member. He also started working with smaller groups that performed on different occasions. That is how he learned that there are many different ways of playing drums that are specific to the occasion.
“Every music genre comes with different needs that a drummer must meet to make an impression.” He notes that a big band must have a propelling and simple drive. It must be supportive for the ensemble to fit. For instance, a driving bass drum is crucial in Brazilian music, while reggae needs a sophisticated groove that goes with a swing. He compares Afro-Cuban music to boxing which flows like spurring with the opposition. Much of his influence came from listening to Tony William play, which compelled him to change how he approached the instruments. It went even further when he listened to John Coltrane and Elvin Jones.
The drummer started playing with Ray Charles at the age of 25. They toured different parts of the world for eight months every year. He recalls how Ray would make the same songs they played seem new every night. Three years with Ray, and he was ready to move on.
Ballard relocated to NYC, where he met other musicians who had the same ideas as his. He started working with Mark Turner, Brad Mehldau, Avishai Cohen, and Ben Allison. His music then changed to something that was more personal. He would find new ideas and fit them in them the music with anything that would make the drums sound better.
Ballard has also hit the road with Eddy Harris, Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, Mike Stern, and Perez Danillo. In ’99, the drummer joined Chick Corea, with whom he continues to work on various projects. “I have learned a lot from him. I can achieve great speed with constant clarity, thanks to his influence.” He says.
Today, Ballard plays music for the Brad Mehldau Trio, Elastic Band, performs with Corea from time to time, and co-leads Fly. He keeps making good music and influencing other musicians across the world. And with Fly, Ballard has learned diversity in presenting drums musically. Jeff Ballard continues to inspire the drumming realm with his moves.