Interview with Nicholas D. Ball
Nicholas D.Ball is a professional drummer and percussionist specialising in early jazz. He studied jazz at Trinity Laban College of Music in Greenwich and now enjoys performing with Vitality Five, an authentic early jazz band, and as a core member of Alex Mendham’s vintage orchestra. His passion for early jazz drumming has led Nicholas to create a niche website – drumsinthetwenties.com, where he collates all his findings about the era. More recently he has been involved with composing for and performing with the Lucky Dog Picturehouse Band for silent film festivals in and around London. I got chatting to Nicholas about his love for the early twenties, playing on Downton Abbey and why its important to turn up with doughnuts…
Firstly, can you tell us about your musical journey growing up?
Both my parents came from homes where classical music was constantly being played and enjoyed, and passed their dependence on music on to me before I was really old enough to object. Around the age of six or seven, my gradual demolition of all their kitchen utensils accompanying ‘The Hall Of The Mountain King’ convinced them that I might have the requisite commitment to loud noises to start taking drum lessons. Under the tutelage of a couple of good local teachers I played rock drum kit and orchestral percussion at a decent level throughout my teenage years and enjoyed both. At about sixteen I was suddenly and irrevocably abducted by jazz. I can’t even really remember how or why it grabbed me, except that perhaps it was the one type of music none of my friends or family liked, or even really knew about – typical teenage rebellion, I suppose! Anyhow, I suddenly got the feeling that jazz could perhaps be ‘my’ thing, and the two of us have been together more or less happily ever since.
Making it as a professional drummer can’t be easy. What are your top tips for aspiring drummers?
The drums are an accompanying instrument; the person or people being accompanied always matter the most. Thus, the most important skills for a drummer to develop and keep in mind at all times are the ability to listen (to the rest of the music, not your own bit), a light touch (no drummer was sacked for being too quiet), a sense of musical shape and structure, and as good an ability to keep steady time as you can manage.
There are loads of drummers who are way, way better than me, and lots of them aren’t even pros. I can’t play every style of music, I don’t have tremendous stamina, and I don’t have ferocious technique. The realisation I’ve gradually come to is that whilst all those things can be desirable, they’re often not that essential from the point of view of the person hiring you. Also, don’t underestimate the little offstage things that can be so important – turn up punctually, be enthusiastic, be presentable, bring fun, bring doughnuts. Above all, be lucky.
You’re in great demand as a vintage jazz drummer. How did you become interested in specialising in early jazz?
Strangely, until I was about 24 or 25, I actively loathed any jazz recorded before the ‘fifties. But I’m a real history geek, and I’ve always been interested in the period around the First World War. When my girlfriend found an antique drum kit from the 1910s in a junk shop for £15, I bought it on the spot, hoping I could start a band using it and give it another ‘life’, as it were. But I didn’t know anything about the music it would have been used for, so I started reading and listening, and trying to put what I learned into practice. Then, people even started offering me money to play old jazz, and as a penniless music graduate that seemed quite an attractive idea! Slowly I grew to absolutely love it, and nearly a decade later I’m still playing it; marginally less penniless and with a lot more old drums kicking about.
The Vitality Five is an authentic 1920s jazz quintet formed about 3 years ago. What do you enjoy most about performing as part of this band?
There are so many things I love about playing with Five; after almost every gig someone in the audience will come up and tell me I was grinning and laughing out loud throughout. The fact is that it’s a total treat to be allowed within a mile of the other musicians on the stage – some real heavyweight virtuosos who I’d been listening to for years and never dreamed we’d become friends and colleagues. I’d also listened to and cherished a lot of the music we play (which is mostly pretty esoteric and obscure) for years, but had never had a chance to even hear any of it played live, let alone be part of playing it.
You were involved in playing music in Downton Abbey a few years ago. What was it like being on the set?
It was fun, although less daunting than it might have been because I’d never actually watched the show before! For one of the shoots we had to go down to Highclere Castle to film a big party scene. It was pretty sumptuous – exactly like you see on the TV – and all the big-hitters were there from the cast; I remember sharing a very pleasant cup of tea with Jim Carter, who plays the head butler. Our scene involved the main characters talking whilst a band played in the background, so as the actors spoke their lines we had to silently mime along to an in-ear playback of a recording we’d made a few weeks earlier. The pianist was given a silent piano, the brass and reed players puffed their cheeks out but didn’t blow, and I discovered that making it look as if you’re really playingthe drums in complete silenceis harder than you might think, particularly with about a hundred film crew and some of the UK’s most beloved actors ready to turn around in dismay if you accidentally loudly hit something and ruin a perfect shot!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about making a period performance authentic?
That ultimately, it’s impossible! The best you can do is read and research everything you can, and then get as close as time, money and your sense of what makes a good show allows – it’s always worth remembering that however authentic a thing may be, it may not work well for modern audiences.
You’ve created a website www.drumsinthetwenties.com– what can people find here?
It’s a continuing work in progress, but what I’m trying to do is to bring together some of the very widely-spread and hard-to-find information that I’ve stumbled over and found useful whilst researching the subject, hopefully in a readable and entertaining way. So far the bulk of it is in the form of biographies of the most prominent early jazz drummers, following each of their careers up until January 1st 1930. There are also some pieces about vintage instruments I’ve collected, and a library section about the general topic of drums, and jazz, in the 1920s. If you think that all sounds bit niche, you’re probably right.
You’re involved in making music for silent films (if that’s not a contradiction!) Talk us through how you came to be a member of the Lucky Dog Picture House band and what that entails…
The LDPH quartet was an idea originally hatched by my partner, the guitarist and composer Emily O’Hara, who wanted to see a silent film with live music played as it would have been a century ago. When she looked around there were lots of musicians playing contemporary music along with old silent films, but nobody really doing what she was looking for – so, since we both knew lots of period-specialist musicians, she decided to just stage it herself. Gradually it’s grown to become a really exciting and fun part of both our lives, and we now do several big shows a year which take several months to prepare.
Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920)
Here’s what we do:
When we choose a new film to compose a score for, we first watch it through and write down every scene and important thing that happens in the film. Then we go through and jot down ideas for possible musical settings, usually making use of leitmotifs for recurring characters, locations or scenes (“Love theme”, “Baddie theme”, “Nightclub music”, etc.) Then we get instruments out and try to establish what these motifs will be – usually they’re original compositions that sound ‘in keeping’ with whatever year the film is from, but sometimes we borrow excerpts of pre-existing music, something we know real silent-film accompanists used to do all the time. Finally we string all these bits and pieces together and try to make the transitions between them feel natural and logical, and fit with the character of the film.
As with real film scores from the period, writing cues for what’s happening on-screen every few bars (“Man enters”, “Woman looks up”, “Man sits down”, “Woman pours bucket of water over man” etc.) are absolutely essential to be able to sync up a live performance accurately and consistently. Of course, as percussionist, my job is part musician and part sound-effects artist too, and I’ve had to source and/or make a huge arsenal of noise-making devices over the years, from simple car horns or train whistles, to wind machines, and even dinosaur roars for The Lost World (1925).
What is the biggest highlight of your career so far?
I’ve been really lucky and had some amazing experiences in the two decades or so that I’ve been a professional musician. If I had to pick one, it might be back in 2015, when the Lucky Dog Picturehouse was commissioned to compose new scores for some early British silent comedies selected by Bryony Dixon, the silent-film curator of the British Film Institute, for a show in LOCO, the London comedy film festival. Seeing those amazing old pieces of history flickering across the screen, playing music I’d composed myself alongside three people who are best friends and amazing musicians all at once, and hearing the laughter whenever a musical joke lined up with a gag was a pretty special feeling.
And finally…if you could perform anywhere and with anyone, who and where would you choose?
Wow, that’s a question! Perhaps with the first ever jazz band (the Original Dixieland Jass Band), who were all from New Orleans but in 1919 came over to the UK to perform at the grand Armistice Ball to mark the peace agreement at the end of the First World War. It was held in the ballroom of the Savoy Hotel in London, where I’ve actually performed several times with Alex Mendham’s orchestra. I’d like to have been there in 1919 not just because the heads-of-state of all the allied countries were there, or because it was probably Britain’s first official introduction to jazz music, but just because I love to imagine the sense of relief and optimism for the future that must have been in the air. It must have been incredible.
Alex Mendham & His Orchestra