The illustrious Boston school of jazz drumming that flourished from about 1940 to 1990 stretches from Bobby Donaldson to Terri Lyne Carrington. It counts among its alumni Roy Haynes, Alan Dawson, Jake Hanna, Clifford Jarvis, and Tony Williams. Bobby Ward, another one of these home-grown drummers, is less known, and undeservedly so. Ward, who died October 20, 2020, at age 81, remains unknown to many, even in his hometown.

Photo of Bobby Ward and Henry Cook

Bobby Ward and Henry Cook. Photo by Jefferson Page, from Accurate AC-5036.

The musicians knew Bobby Ward, though. They knew of Ward’s prowess far from Boston, and spoke of him with the highest respect. In fact, somewhere along the way, he became “the legendary Bobby Ward.” I always question that overused “legendary” label. I know he was an outstanding drummer. But Jo Jones is legendary. Is the little-known Bobby Ward?

Pianist John Kordalewski, leader of the Makanda Project, knew Ward and played with him. He thinks Ward’s unique approach explains the label. “It’s because of how he played,” Kordalewski told me. “There was nobody like him, he was a total original. There were always multiple things happening at once in his playing. The energy was just phenomenal. I’ve played with a lot of good drummers, but there are things that Bobby did that were on another planet.”

Coming up in the 1960s

Robert Donald Ward, born in Boston August 30, 1939, fell in love with the drums at age 13 when he first heard Lionel Hampton. Years later he still remembered Hamp’s “overwhelming force.” During his teen years, he studied with Alan Dawson. Tony Williams was with Dawson at the same time, and the two practiced together. In some tellings of the Ward legend, Clifford Jarvis, another mid-1950s pupil of Dawson’s, was also a part of this select drum circle.

According to legend, Ward was a big influence on Williams, who picked up some of his trademark techniques using the hi-hat from Bobby. Ward never claimed anything like that, though. He did say that any influencing went both ways, and that he and others “were trying all sorts of things back then.”

Bobby Ward grew up in the Roxbury and South End clubs. Bassist Phil Morrison often played with him. “He was fast, faster than all of them. All the musicians in town were aware of his talent, they recognized him.” But perhaps Ward was bound to stay local. “I don’t think he had the ambition that Tony or Clifford had.”

Ward’s first chance to reach a broader audience came through saxophonist Ken McIntyre (not yet Makanda). He played on McIntyre’s first album on Prestige New Jazz, Stone Blues, recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in May 1960. For whatever reason, though, Prestige didn’t release the record until 1962. Down Beat liked the album and rated it with 4.5 stars, although even then it labeled McIntyre’s sidemen as “somewhat obscure.”

McIntyre went to New York, while Ward stayed busy in Boston. He played in various settings—in a trio with trumpeter Howard McGhee, in a trio with pianist Rollins Griffith, in Chick Corea’s trio at Connolly’s, backing Sonny Stitt and Blue Mitchell. In 1963-64, he worked regularly with the Hammond B-3 organist Phil Porter. But when Porter recorded his first album for United Artists in 1963, the company hired the better-known Art Taylor for the date. Ward remained somewhat obscure.

Hopeton Johnson’s organ trio was the house band at Wally’s in the late 1960s. Ward was in the group, with tenor saxophonist James Abraham, but it isn’t clear when, or how long he stayed.

Ward kept at it in the 1970s. He played behind the strippers in the Combat Zone. There was a lot of sitting in, both in Boston and New York, but not much work seemed to come of it. He went on the road once with Freddie Hubbard. And there is a story that he was set to go on tour with Cannonball Adderley, but he got into some kind of argument with Cannon’s bassist. Apparently Adderley reconsidered, because the band left Boston without Ward.

With Bob Mover in the 1980s

In about 1980, Ward connected with alto saxophonist Bob Mover, who was then living in Boston. During their time together, Mover recorded two albums for the Xanadu label, In the True Tradition and Things Unseen. Regarding Ward, Mover stated flatly that “I think he’s one of the most incredible drummers I’ve ever heard in my life.” Mover also quoted Billy Hart, who said simply “Bobby’s a genius.”

True Tradition included Mover’s tune, “Blues for Bobby Ward.” In the liner notes he wrote: “It came from a phrase I heard him play, a basic rhythm; it also reminded me of the strip shows we worked in—sometimes the quality he had playing behind the strippers would be so astonishing. I wanted to write a kind of blues that would make him play that way.”

Mover wrote that True Tradition was only Ward’s second appearance on record. Researching this point, I found a 1980 album by Groove Holmes with Bobby Ward on drums. However, it wasn’t Boston’s Bobby Ward. A Baltimore drummer with the same name, also called legendary by his fans, plays on the Holmes album. Social media users often miss the distinction, thus helping to keep both Bobby Wards somewhat obscure. That’s the kind of thing that keeps a researcher on his toes.

Photo of Billy Skinner Double Jazz Quartet

The Billy Skinner DJQ. Photo by Jefferson Page, on Accurate AC-3333.

Information on Ward through the later 1980s is sparse, until the end of the decade. In 1989 he played a series of reunion gigs with Bob Mover at the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge. Then came a few years as a member of trumpeter Billy Skinner’s Double Jazz Quartet. He’s on their 1990 album, Kosen Rufu. A double quartet implies eight players, but Skinner’s group was a quintet. Russ Gershon, who recorded the group on his Accurate label, asked Skinner about that. Skinner told him, perhaps facetiously, “There are the four of us, and then there’s Bobby. He’s the other four.”

Greater Recognition in the 1990s

Also in Skinner’s group were Salim Washington and Henry Cook, both doubling on saxophones and flute. Ward spent the 1990s playing in groups led by both. It was his most visible decade in the public eye. With the Henry Cook Band, there were prominent gigs at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival and the DeCordova Museum, as well as regular appearances at clubs like Ryles and the Willow. They recorded two albums for Gershon, Dimensional Odyssey in 1995 (a Boston Music Award winner) and Live at Montreux Detroit in 1998.

In 1994, Ward was videotaped during a Henry Cook Band gig at Ryles. He was not given to pyrotechnic displays, but the intensity is there all the same.

Ward joined Salim Washington’s ambitious band, the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic, and played on their lone album, Love in Exile, in 1998. The RBA built a local following through their residence at Connolly’s in its final years. Ward was surely aware of the passage of time there. When he worked the room in 1963 with Phil Porter, that block of Tremont Street was part of a busy neighborhood. In 1998, Connolly’s was the only building still standing in a sadly desolate stretch.

Ward and John Kordalewski continued working together after the RBA disbanded. “In the early 2000s, I worked a lot of trio gigs with Bobby,” recalled Kordalewski. “We’d do jazz brunches. Bobby would call them “shut-up clubs” because the managers were always telling us to play quietly. Bobby was phenomenal with brushes. Not the methodical kind of playing you hear from a lot of drummers—he had the magic going. I had a Saturday thing with (saxophonist) Andy McGhee at Tanner’s in Woburn for about six months, and we had Bobby on drums one week. Andy was skeptical about Bobby. Andy was a straight-down-the-middle kind of guy, and Bobby went this way and that way. But after that night, Andy told me that he really liked Bobby because of the way he played those brushes.”

Ward surfaced one last time in 2010 with trumpeter Wallace Roney, playing on three tracks on his High Note album, Home. All are available on YouTube. Two tracks, “Home” and “Ghost of Yesterday” feature the whole group, while the third, “Revive,” is a drum solo. That Roney included it can only be seen as a mark of his respect for Bobby Ward.

People who knew Bobby talk about his warmth and his humor, as well as his individuality and eccentricities—and how he himself felt that he never got his due. He was an outstanding drummer, a cum laude graduate of the Boston school of jazz drumming. But he was fated to remain in Boston, and to become a legend—the peerless drummer locked away in New England. It’s another one of those jazz stories that just leaves you shaking your head. And perhaps singing a blues for Bobby Ward.

Here is “Ghost,” and Bobby indeed has the magic going with the brushes.