George E. Ballard, 92, jazz drummer

George E. "Butch" Ballard with bassist Benny Nelson and saxophonist Charles Bowen in 1990. He worked with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and many others.
George E. "Butch" Ballard with bassist Benny Nelson and saxophonist Charles Bowen in 1990. He worked with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and many others.
Posted: October 09, 2011

George E. Ballard, 92, a Philadelphia drummer described in a 2000 Inquirer profile as "one of the Philadelphia jazz scene's most storied elders," died Saturday, Oct. 1, at Cheltenham-York Road Nursing Center in Philadelphia.

Mr. Ballard, known as Butch, was "one of the few musicians to play with both Count Basie and Duke Ellington," reporter Karl Stark wrote.

"He recorded with trumpeter Louis Armstrong, collaborated in Paris with saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and formed close friendships with many top musicians, including trumpeter Clark Terry," Stark wrote.

Yet his roots were so deep in the Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia before and after his world-class career that, at the time of the profile, he was the Democratic leader of the 23d Ward there.

In 1942, Mr. Ballard moved from Frankford to Harlem, and his career took off. "His immediate ambition is to join the prestigious band of Cootie Williams, the former Duke Ellington trumpeter," Stark wrote, using present tense to make the story immediate.

"He takes the A train to the audition, an auspicious choice for a swing musician. . . .

"When his turn comes, Ballard is elated at what he has to play." The arrangement of "Air Mail Special" "is the same arrangement that his old band in Philadelphia used. Ballard, blessed with a prodigious memory, knows this chart as well as his phone number.

"But he doesn't let his listeners know that. He pretends he is sight-reading. . . .

"He gets the job. It is his first big break. He opens with Williams' band, including singer Pearl Bailey, at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago."

Mr. Ballard continued playing well into this century.

On Dec. 1, 2006, he received a Mellon Jazz Achievement Award and a $5,000 check, which, an Inquirer story reported, he donated to the Philadelphia Clef Club.

On Dec. 7, 2006, he celebrated the month of his 88th birthday by playing at the Collingswood First Thursday Concert Series at the Collingswood Community Center.

Cheryl Green, a relative who cared for Mr. Ballard for the last decade, said that "at age 89, he formed a new trio that was the house band for Mozaic," a restaurant and art gallery on Frankford Avenue near Orthodox Street. "He played his last set" at the LaRose Jazz Club on Germantown Avenue near Queen Lane, she said, "at age 90." Over the decades, Green said, his recordings totaled more than 300.

But his past is where the big names glittered.

Following World War II military service in Navy bands, he recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1946 and worked with, among others, Illinois Jacquet and Mercer Ellington.

Mr. Ballard's career, Stark wrote, "soared until the mid-1950s when, in part because his wife, Jessie, hated New York City, the couple forsook the Harlem high life and moved back to Frankford."

In another look back, another Inquirer story reported that, "in the 1950s, [he] played with such musicians as Shorty Baker, Clark Terry, Ernie Royal and Arnett Cobbs.

"In the '60s, he focused on leading his own band from a Philadelphia base, and then eventually moved into giving private lessons."

But he continued performing, down the decades.

Born in Camden, Mr. Ballard grew up in Frankford, the son of a water-main repairman for the Philadelphia Water Department. He attended Northeast High School but dropped out in his senior year to begin working full time at his music.

Green said that Mr. Ballard is survived by son Brenton Randolph, a brother, a sister, and three grandchildren. His wife died in March 2000. A viewing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 10, at the Second Baptist Church of Frankford, 1801 Meadow St., before an 11 a.m. funeral there. Burial is to be in Fairview Cemetery, 1511 Twining Rd., Willow Grove.


Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or at wnaedele@phillynews.com.

 

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