Following up on yesterday’s post of a 1986 interview with Edward Blackwell, rich in cultural implication, here’s a dialogue with drummer Herlin Riley, the nephew of Melvin Lastie, Blackwell’s close friend. Riley’s c.v. includes a five-year run with Ahmad Jamal, and 17 years (1988-2005) with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (as it was then named) and the Wynton Marsalis Septet. The conversations transpired as background for the liner notes that I wrote for Riley’s two excellent Criss-Cross recordings,Watch What You’re Doing (1999) and Cream of the Crescent (2005), the latter recorded just after Riley left his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sinecure to pursue his own projects. I’ve combined the interviews below.
A griotic improviser who lived the tradition from the inside out in his formative years in New Orleans, Riley —in the manner of such New Orleans antecedents as Baby Dodds, Freddie Kohlman, Paul Barbarin, Smokey Jackson, Vernell Fournier, Blackwell, and Idris Muhammad—is a drum scientist, one who has investigated all the sounds he can extract from the components of the drumkit and from vernacular percussion, and conjured fresh grooves, combinations, and modes of expression from a vocabulary that draws on second line, Meters-like funk, Afro-Cuban and Samba styles, Mardi Gras Indian chants, the odd-metered swing of James Black, 4/4 swing, the sanctified backbeat, and the blues.
* * * *
What is it about the culture of New Orleans that makes its drum styles and rhythmic signatures so distinctive?
RILEY: Well, one thing, I think, during the time when jazz was being developed, New Orleans was a melting pot for different cultures. There was the French culture, the African culture, the Spanish, some Portuguese, some Italian. So with that, I think, and the stuff that was played in Congo Square, which was the only place where Africans could play their drums during slavery… I think what came out of those rhythms was a lot of bottom, which is the bass drum. Even today, when we have second-lines and we have marching parades and that kind of thing, the bass drum is very prevalent in the music. When you hear guys who come from New Orleans… I think a lot of that influence is the fact that there’s a dialogue with the bass drum and also the snare drum throughout the music…
A polyrhythmic dialogue?
RILEY: Yeah, because they have a conversation. It’s not necessarily the bass drum answers the snare drum with the same phrase. It’s like it has a conversation. The bass drum may have a question, and the snare drum will answer it. You extrapolate that to the trapset. And even though it may be different styles of music, even if it’s swing or whatever, you can pretty much hear that undercurrent of dialogue between the snare drum and bass drum that’s happening all the time.
You come from a family that contained several generations of musicians and drummers. Let’s talk first about the passing-down of information, and then tell me a bit about your family lineage in music.
RILEY: Well, information is pretty much passed down as…it’s like a griot, you know. Those guys who come and tell you stories about different music and different guys who played the music, but they also teach you about the styles. For myself, the style was passed on to me pretty much by my grandfather, who was a drummer. He played the drums, and he played in the homes with Louis Armstrong, like 1913; the boys who were locked up together in the homes. His name was Frank Lastie. I was raised pretty much by my grandparents, my grandmother and my grandfather. My grandfather would sit me down at the table in the mornings with two butter knives or something, and he would beat out rhythms on the table, and he would challenge me to try to do them, and I would try to do the rhythms behind him. Sometimes I would succeed and most times I would fail, and he would just laugh at me. But the fact that I was being exposed to a particular style… Still til today, I go back and check out the influence he’s had on me, and it’s still prevalent in my playing.
Was he a working drummer, a working musician when he was raising you?
RILEY: Well, he wasn’t a working musician. He didn’t play the drums professionally. He played pretty much in church. I learned to play pretty much just in church. And when he would get up from the drums in church, I would sit down and play behind him. But his sons were also musicians — Melvin Lastie, David Lastie and Walter Lastie. Now, Walter Lastie was a drummer; they called him Poppy(?). He’s the one that actually turned me on to styles of bebop and more modern styles of playing. How to hold a stick and how to use the rebound in a stick for speed and that kind of thing. So he kind of taught me about the technique of playing and about the more modern styles. You were also talking about some second-line stuff, but that came from my grandfather. Then as I got older, I started checking out other drummers around New Orleans, like James Black or Paul Barbarin.
Say something specific about Paul Barbarin first, and then James Black, their style and relating it to New Orleans tradition.
RILEY: Well, Paul Barbarin played pretty much the traditional New Orleans style; he plays a lot of snare drums and a lot of rolls, and he played some woodblock and choke cymbal kind of things, which is more the traditional New Orleans style playing. He played with people like Louis Armstrong…
Well, he played with Luis Russell, who was an early big band, which would seem to relate to you in a certain way. Applying that to a big band might be an interesting connection here.
RILEY: Well, the big band thing is a whole nother… I didn’t look to Paul Barbarin for my influences in playing big band styles. I listened to people like Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne for that style of playing. But going back to New Orleans, that’s pretty much the traditional influence.
But I listened to James Black also for the more modern influence. James played in odd meters, like in 5/4, in 7/4 and that kind of stuff, and he played all these polyrhythmic things, like back in the ’60s…
Like the “Monkey Puzzle” record.
RILEY: Yes, those kinds of things. So I listened to James for the modern kind of influence. But I wasn’t listening to him to be influenced by him. I would go see him play and just be in awe of his playing. I watched him for many years. Once I was playing a gig when I… I used to play the trumpet as well, and I was a teenager and I was playing in the park where we would play and do these talent shows. James Black happened to be in the neighborhood that particular day…
He played trumpet, too, didn’t he?
RILEY: He played trumpet, too, yes. But this story is so ironic. I’d heard about James, but this is before I saw him play. I’d heard all these stories about him and what a phenomenal drummer he was and so forth. Then one day we were playing at this talent show, and he comes on stage. This guy’s playing the piano, and he’s playing all these bad changes and stuff, playing the blues and playing some of his own tunes. I asked somebody, “Who is this guy playing the piano?” They said, ‘Man, that’s James Black. You don’t know who that is? That’s James Black.” I was flabbergasted, because I never expected him to play the piano as well as he did. I guess the point I’m making is that he was a wonderful composer as well as being a great drummer. James wrote some fine tunes. So as I got older, I began to appreciate his talents more and more.
The Lasties were close to Blackwell, too, no?
RILEY: Yes, they were close to Blackwell. My uncle Melvin especially was good friends with Blackwell. They hung out around New Orleans, and also when they got to New York they did gigs with Willie Bobo and Ornette Coleman, and they hung out with Don Cherry and did some stuff with him as well. New Orleans is a very small place, so all the players, all the guys, all the musicians know each other. It’s a good thing, because they have jam sessions, and there’s also an exchange of ideas and influences. You don’t hardly find any kind of animosity or jealousy among the players down here. People are always willing to exchange information. I think that’s a healthy thing for music in general.
Let’s get some facts and figures. You were born when?
RILEY: I was born in New Orleans, February 15, 1957.
Your grandfather was giving you the butter knives when you were 3-4-5?
RILEY: Yes, I was 3 years old. Actually there was always drums in the house. It was just there for me to play, and I learned to play because they were there. I heard my uncles rehearsing in the house. They had different bands that would come to my grandparents’ house and rehearse. They would kind of roll my crib into the rehearsal room and let me check out the music, and it would keep me quiet. So as I got old enough to walk and to handle things, they put sticks in my hands, and I was able to play. I just innately learned how to play.
Did you have any formal teachers when you were young, apart from your uncle and…
RILEY: I never had any formal training on the drum set. I played the trumpet in high school. What I would do… When I got to high school…by then I could play the drums. I mean, I could handle myself a little bit.
On the trap drums.
RILEY: On the trap drums. When I got to high school and I played the trumpet, I would watch other drummers. Every time we would take a break or something, I could go over to the other drummers about what they were doing, and they would show me stuff, like 5-stroke rolls, what a flam was, various paradiddles and so forth. They would show me those things, and challenge me to do them with them. Sometimes I could do it, sometimes I couldn’t. But I was gathering information about the technical aspects of playing.
Were you playing functionally at that time?
RILEY: I was playing in church all the time.
Trap drums and tambourine…
RILEY: Not a lot of tambourine, but mostly trap drums. From the time I was 5 years old on up, I was always playing… I went to church regularly. I went to church like 2 or 3 times a week. So I got a chance to play… Every time my grandfather would get up, I would sit down and play, and then as time went on, I got to play more and more, because I was growing and I was able to keep better time and that kind of thing. So I could always play the drums. But when I went to high school, I was playing trumpet in school, and drums was something I did that nobody in the school knew about. They didn’t really know about that, until they saw me messing around with the other drummers or something.
Were you playing drums in brass bands, or were you a parade drummer?
RILEY: No, I wasn’t doing that. Well, I got a chance to do that when I was 14, and Danny Barker, who was a banjo player, had come back to New Orleans from New York, and he formed a band of younger musicians, of kids, playing traditional second-lines and New Orleans style music. So I was fortunate enough to get a shot to play in a band. I played in that band…
That was the Fairview Baptist Church band.
RILEY: The Fairview Baptist Church Band. Yes, it was.
Tell me about that experience, of meeting Danny Barker and meeting him. Did he have a big impact on you?
RILEY: Absolutely. Well, Danny Barker had played with Lady Day, and Cab Calloway. So I knew the legend of Danny Barker; it stuck out. My uncle Melvin knew Danny Barker real well, and he came back to New Orleans and formed this band, he told Danny Barker that he had a nephew who played the trumpet, and Danny said, “Yeah, just bring him over here.” He gave him an address where to bring me, I went over to where they were rehearsing, and I got a chance to play. That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, because Danny always taught us how to… Even though we were playing music, he said, “Man, you play music, but you’ve got to play to people. Because you’re not playing for yourself; you’ve got play music for the people.” There were some other guys in the band, like Leroy Jones, who plays with Harry Connick, Lucien Barbarin, who’s also with Harry Connick, Wynton came through the band… At the time it was a good thing, because nobody else was doing that kind of thing. All the music that was being played was pretty much being played by adults, and Danny’s coming down and organizing kids to participate in playing the music I thought was a good thing.
You’re talking about being trained in all this traditional music, but you’re much more than a traditional drummer. You cover a history, a spectrum. When did you start playing modern jazz?
RILEY: Well, it was always there. Just being in New Orleans, I got a chance to play with a lot of different type of musicians. I got a chance to play with traditional guys, I got a chance to play with guys who were trying to stretch a little bit more. I remember playing with guys like Ramsey McLean, who’s now a lyricist, but he was a bass player back then. Harry Connick was also part of a band called Lifers, with Charmaine Neville. I played in that group, and we had a chance to play… Well, Sam Rivers came down once and played with us, and it was like some free-form kind of stuff. So I got a chance to play with him. Then in ’75 I played with a Russian cat named Vladimir who had a Latin band. I played in funk bands with some of the Neville guys. So just because of being in New Orleans and New Orleans being a small city, I had a chance to play with all the guys who were playing different types of music. Because there’s only a handful of drummers and a handful of bass players and so forth, so a handful of drummers and bass players covered a lot of different gigs.
Were you exposed at all to, say, Kidd Jordan or Alvin Fielder or Alvin Batiste?
RILEY: Yes. I went to school at Southern University in 1975, and Kidd was the director there at the time, and I played in that band. Also, when I was in Carver High School, Alvin Batiste came from Southern University to do a Jazz Artist in Residence program. The band was under the directorship of Miss Yvonne Bush. One thing I can say about Miss Bush, she would always allow us to do other things. If musicians wanted to play other instruments, she would always encourage you to do that. If you wanted to write, she would always encourage you to do that as well. But Alvin would come down, like, twice a week, and turn us on to things about jazz, how the rhythms in jazz work, and the blues scale, and let us improvise, and that kind of thing. So I was definitely touched by Alvin Batiste as well as Kidd Jordan. I also had a chance to play with Ellis Marsalis, even before I knew Wynton, in the Heritage Hall Jazz Band, which played trad style, but also leaned toward more kind of bebop styles, too. So it would play trad styles, but would put modern harmonies on it and that kind of thing.
I heard a record by them with Freddie Kohlman on drums.
RILEY: Yes, as a matter of fact, I replaced Freddie Kohlman in the band. I came after he did.
So your experience is sort of perfectly suited for what you’re doing now. The past is very vivid for you. It’s not like some exotic artifact. It’s a living entity.
RILEY: Yes, it is. It is a living entity, because I’m playing all these different things even now; all these different styles that I learned growing up, I’m having a chance to apply all of that stuff now in my playing.
When did you learn how to read music? Was that in high school?
RILEY: Yeah, I learned how to read from playing the trumpet, learning scales and so on.
Let’s talk about the course of your career, then. From Southern University to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
RILEY: All right. When I graduated out of high school, I played trumpet in a group that my uncle Walter (Papi) had put together. I was 18 or so. My uncle was playing the drums. We did a gig somewhere in Florida with a 1950’s style Rock-and-Roll group called Vince Vance and the Valiants. The drummer was leaving the group to go to law school or something, and they had a couple more gigs to do. He asked my uncle if he would do the gig. My uncle had family and couldn’t do it, so he recommended me to do them. I went on the road and I played this gig with these guys, which was like 1950’s Rock-and-Roll, shuffles, and Duke of Earl, all that kind of stuff. That was a real good experience for me at that time. I wasn’t sure myself if I could play the drums on a gig. I’d been playing in church and kind of practicing around, but I wasn’t sure myself if I could do it on a gig. So I did it, I made the gig, the gig did well.
Right after that, I started getting calls to do more of these ’50s kind of gigs. So I did a couple more of those in New Orleans, and I was still playing trumpet also. One night, my Uncle David called and asked me if I could do a gig in a burlesque club on Bourbon Street. He was at the street at Stratus(?) Club with Frogman Henry, and the 500 Club across the street was owned by the same people. The 500 Club was a club that had strippers and novelty acts.
So you got to do the dinks for the strippers.
RILEY: Yes. Crash cymbal for kicking their leg, and when they’re shaking their butt you hit the tom-toms, and that kind of stuff.
You get into the dynamics of the kit.
RILEY: Yes. That’s very true. It did get me into the dynamics of the kit, and to know how to use each part of the kit for certain effects. I was playing trumpet on one night, subbing for a guy, and I would play drums on another night. The gig ran seven nights a week, and the only way musicians could get off is if they had a sub. So I was subbing for both guys on different nights. Ironically, the trombone player and the drummer, who I was subbing for, both quit at the same time, so then they hired me as the permanent drummer because I knew the show. I knew when the kicks were coming and I knew when they were going to shake their behind or whatever. So I knew the show, and so they just hired another horn player to come in. That’s when I began to play the drums really on a professional level, because I was doing it every night. Time went on, and I did that for about two years…
You were going to school at the time?
RILEY: Yes, I was going to Southern-New Orleans during the day and I would do that gig at night.
Were you a music major?
RILEY: Yes, I was a music major. That was kind of rough for me. I was doing the gig, I was married with a daughter, trying to make a living…
And they stay open late in New Orleans.
RILEY: Yes, they do. I was working from 9 to until 2:45 in the morning, and I had to make sure I was out of there to catch the bus at 3 a.m., because if I missed the 3 o’clock bus I had to wait until the 4 o’clock bus came around. So at quarter to 3, I was making sure I packed up and got my stuff out of there. One thing about the show, it ran clockwork. It was on time, to the second almost. It was a drag to have to play that way every night, but come 2:45 I was glad it was.
And I guess later on that’s discipline that serves you well in some sense or another.
RILEY: Absolutely. Because after I left that show, I did a trio gig in a hotel lounge with Johnny Bashman, who played piano, but also was a tap dancer around Las Vegas and in New York. He replaced Sammy Davis in a show called “Mr. Wonderful” and that kind of stuff, but he also played a lot of piano, boogie-woogie style. So I played in a trio setting with him. I learned a lot from that gig, because he taught me about tempos. He would play real fast tempos, and he would play for long stretches of time. I learned a lot of things about texture with him, because he sang ballads, he sang show tunes like “Send In The Clowns.” So I learned textures, and how to play soft, ballady kind of things behind a singer, in a trio… Because it’s a lounge; it’s a quiet kind of setting. I also learned to play fast and soft playing with his group.
Now you’re how old? Still in school?
RILEY: No, I had left school by then. This is ’79-’80. I didn’t get a degree; I left school. So this is 1980, I leave Johnny Bashman’s group, and I leave and go play with Al Hirt’s group. That was interesting. Al was a phenomenal trumpet player. Sometimes he would be great, but other times he would drink, and I don’t want to spew any venom on the cat, but then other sides of him would come out. So that was a nice experience to do his gig, too. He was legendary around New Orleans, and it was a good gig for me at the time.
It must have been the best-paying gig you’d had.
RILEY: It was. I mean, in New Orleans it was the best paying gig. To be at home, and I was getting paid good with him at home. So that was good at the time, and I appreciate that opportunity. I did that for about a year, until about ’81.
Did that challenge you or stretch your concept in any way, or was it just what you knew?
RILEY: No, it didn’t really… It was just a gig, pretty much. But then I left his gig, and I played with a show called “One Mo’ Time.”
Directed by Vernell Bagneris. I think I saw that show in New York. Were you in it?
RILEY: No, I didn’t do the Village Gate. I didn’t do New York. But I did New Orleans, and then they went to London in 1981, and I went with the show and stayed for six months just playing the show. That was another great, great experience, because at the time I did that, I was playing 1920’s kind of music, which was nothing but snare drum, bass drum, floor tom and a crash cymbal, a choke cymbal thing. It was good to do that, and also it was a show. The show was a more upscale kind of show, with dialogue, and it was actually acting and that kind of thing…
It was theater.
RILEY: It was theater. Exactly. It wasn’t burlesque. It was theater. So that was another kind of discipline to do that show, the discipline of playing that style of music, the discipline of being on stage and being somewhat in character. I did that show for a couple of years. In fact, that’s when I met Wynton. In 1981, while I was doing that show…
RILEY: He has emerged by then. There’s a club in London called Ronnie Scott’s, and I was there for six months, so after the show, every night… My show would end at 10:30, and I could go to Ronnie Scott’s and catch the 11 o’clock show with guys coming in. I got a chance…
So London was very nice experience for you. Because you got to experience the world-class jazz music there.
RILEY: Right. I got to experience world-class jazz music, being in another part of the world, a whole nother culture. And going to Ronnie Scott’s every night, I saw Betty Carter, I saw Art Blakey, I saw Dexter Gordon, I saw Panama Francis — just a host of different world-class musicians.
Who you had not had a chance to see in New Orleans.
RILEY: Right, never had a chance to see in New Orleans, and I hadn’t been coming to New York enough to see these guys either. So that was a good experience for me to be in London for that period of time.
How did Art Blakey impress you?
RILEY: He was a MONSTER on the drums. That’s when I saw Wynton. I was going to see Art Blakey… I knew Wynton was in the band, and when I met Wynton, he knew who I was, I knew who he was. He knew who I was because I had played with his father and by my reputation a little bit in New Orleans. And I knew who he was, because of course, everybody knows. So from that time we met, man, he was just like a brother to me. He took me in the back, he hugged me, he said, “Hey, this is my homie, man!” We weren’t very close, but he embraced me that way, and he took me in the back and introduced me to Art Blakey and the rest of the guys in the band. He looked out for me. Then the next night, Branford came to the show and saw the show. So that’s the birth of my relationship with Wynton. So that was London for me.
Did you play with any of the English jazz musicians while you were over there, or was it exclusively “One mo’ Time”?
RILEY: No, I got a chance to play with some English musicians. I can’t remember their names.
Was it a trad thing, or more modernist?
RILEY: I played some trad stuff. But also, I was in London with Walter Payton, Nicholas Payton’s father, who was playing tuba in “One Mo’ Time.’ Now, he also played upright bass, which is what he really enjoys playing.
I hear he has an incredible instrument, too.
RILEY: Yes, he does. But Walter and I would go out trying to find out where cats were swinging and playing more modern styles. There was this club called Tutty’s in London, and we would go there on Sunday afternoons when they had a 2 o’clock matinee, and we’d swing with those guys… At other times we’d try to find out where guys were playing. If we had a chance… That was a regular spot for us to play. They were playing more modern styles there. But we’d also go into other places to try to play and hear other people.
So that’s London. After I left London, I came back and I was in New Orleans, and I got a call from a guy in New Orleans about Ahmad Jamal. This was ’82 or ’83. Ahmad Jamal had come to town on a gig, and his drummer left the gig like in the middle of the week or something; his wife was having a baby, so he left the gig real abruptly. So a friend of ours, Emery Thompson, a trumpet player called me, and asked me if I could make the gig with him. They threw somebody else in to make the rest of the week, and he didn’t like him. Ahmad was going the next week to Phoenix, Arizona, and he asked Emery Thompson, “Who’s a guy in town who can perhaps do my gig?” He said, “I’ve got the perfect guy for you.” So he recommended me.
Ahmad called me at about 7 in the morning… First Emery calls me and says that Ahmad Jamal wants me. “Ahmad Jamal needs you, man.” I said, ‘Man, are you serious? It’s 7 in the morning. Don’t play any jokes on me, man.” “No, I’m serious. He really wants you to play in his band. I’ll have him call you.” So sure enough, about 10 minutes later, Ahmad Jamal calls me and says, “I’d really like to have you come out and play with me.”
He hadn’t heard you; this is just on the recommendation.
RILEY: Just on the recommendation. Emery Thompson is known as Omar Sharif. He’s also a Muslim; that was the connection between he and Ahmad. So he says, “Can you fly to Phoenix today?” I said, “Today? I don’t know. I have some gigs; I have to get some subs.” So to make a long story short, I got subs for all my gigs, and I was packed, and I was on the plane by 1 in the afternoon that same day. I flew to Phoenix, met him — I didn’t know what he looked like. I checked in the hotel. Then we had to do a soundcheck, which was 30 minutes after I got there.
That was the rehearsal.
RILEY: That was the rehearsal. But it was so easy to do a soundcheck; it was so easy to work with Ahmad Jamal. He sat down at the piano, and he didn’t say very much to me; just sat down, started playing, and just continued to play. He would play, and then he would point at the bass player, the bass player would come in, then he’d point at the conga player, the conga player came in… In the meantime, he’s playing the cycle of the song around and around, three or four or five times. Then he finally points to me and brings me in. He didn’t tell them what to play. I just listened to them play it. And I found my pocket. I tried to find my own little pocket…
Was his style something very easy for a New Orleans drummer to find a pocket? Do you think he was influenced by a New Orleans conception of drumming?
RILEY: Yes, absolutely I think so, because his number-one-selling hit was basically a New Orleans groove which was laid down by Vernell Fournier — “Poinciana.”
Which is now known as the Poinciana beat. Where does it come from?
RILEY: It comes from Second Line. DING-DUM-DING, DINK-DE-DOOM, DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM. DING. DING. DING. DING. DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM. That’s nothing but just a second line groove; that’s all it is. So I would definitely say yes to that, because that’s the tune that pretty much put Ahmad on the map. But the point is, I think it doesn’t matter if you’re from New Orleans or Timbuktu or wherever. I think Ahmad Jamal has such a feeling and command of his instrument, and the spirit that he brings to the music, that if you just listen to what he’s playing, you can find a spot, man, because he leaves a lot of room for other people to play in.
Lately he’s been working a lot with Idris.
RILEY: Yes. So I definitely think he has an affection for New Orleans drummers. He’s even mentioned it to me before. He said that he’s worked with New Orleans drummers, and he’s enjoyed the experience of working with each one of us.
So you were with Jamal for about five years.
RILEY: Yeah, five years with Ahmad Jamal. I would say Ahmad Jamal is like a matador on the bandstand. He’s very calm, and he has command of everything around him on the bandstand. He has a presence about himself. When he hits the bandstand, the musicians, the audience, everybody just tunes in to what he has to say. And he definitely has a lot to say on the piano. It was very easy for me to go in and do that audition with him. And after I did that audition, that very first time, he was like, “You’re hired.” Well, we did the gig that night. After the gig that night he came to me and asked, “Would you like to work in the group?” I said “Sure, man.” So he hired me on the spot. But it was so easy to come in and play with him, because he has command of everything. He gives signals for his music, and he’ll let you know when it’s time to go to the top of the tune, when it’s time to go to the bridge, or when it’s time to play the interlude or whatever. So therefore, he can arrange his music on the spot each and every time, and it’s in a way that it can turn on a dime. When he commands it, it can just shift and go to another thing. So the music is very loose but also, because of him and his way, it’s very disciplined, too.
And for you, it must have been the total validation that you’re ready to play with anybody, any time, any place, anywhere.
RILEY: Well, definitely working with Ahmad Jamal gave me a shot of confidence. Because his music was challenging. There was stuff in his music that I had never played, rhythms I’d never really faced before or dealt with before. So that was definitely an educational experience, and working with him gave me a certain amount of confidence.
Were you aware of Vernell Fournier beforehand?
RILEY: I was not really aware of him. I had heard “Poinciana” before. I sort of took him for granted. Because that groove wasn’t foreign to me at all, aside from hearing the tune on jukeboxes and so forth. Now, I knew who Ahmad Jamal was, but I knew him mostly by his more contemporary recordings. But less the stuff he did in the ’50s.
Blackwell did a very specific study of African rhythms at a certain point, and he said it was very congruent with what he came up with in the culture of New Orleans. Did you at any point do specific studies of African or Afro-Cuban rhythms, or were they just sort of inherent in the rhythms you learned coming up in New Orleans?
RILEY: No, I didn’t study those types of rhythms that extensively. The experience I had playing with the Latin band, the New Aquarians, in New Orleans, kind of helped me to identify some of those styles. But I pretty much listened… I try to evoke the spirit of the rhythms as opposed to just playing specifically the exact rhythm or something that’s played. I try to just capture the feeling of what it feels like in a particular space or place musically.
So you leave Jamal in ’87, and is that when you hook up with Wynton?
RILEY: Shortly thereafter. I did a small stint with a show called “Satchmo: America’s Musical Legend.” Byron Stripling played Satchmo. Anyway, I did that show for six or seven months. I did a little acting in it as well, which was nice. But then right after that, in ’88, I joined Wynton’s band, then a quintet with myself, Wynton, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts and Todd Williams. Marcus had been with the band a year or two. It was ironic, because I think it was my 31st birthday when he called me. I always say it was the best birthday present I could have gotten, just a call from him to come play in his band. Wynton had seen me play with Ahmad Jamal once, and I was surprised that he’d call me. We talked about it later, and I think what influenced him to call me most was the fact that maybe a year before that I’d played at the Jazz & Heritage Festival with Ellis on a trio gig with Reginald Veal. Wynton happened to be in town with his band, and he came and sat in with us, and he liked the feeling of myself and Reginald playing together.Then a year or two later, that’s when he called me, and he said it was from that experience… He’d kept it in mind; it just felt good for him.
So while you were with Jamal, you continued to play around New Orleans in a variety of situations.
RILEY: Yeah. When I would come off the road with Jamal, people would call me to do different types of gigs. Ellis Marsalis would call me. Teddy Riley would call me on gigs [no relation]. I would occasionally get a chance to do stuff with Danny Barker. I would do stuff with Charmaine Neville. I would play in my uncles’ R&B bands.
That wasn’t just the normal R&B band, was it. They were kind of stretching forms, no?
RILEY: They were stretching the forms in little ways. But they still were playing blues, and they were playing like shuffles and slow kind of blues and that kind of stuff. I would also get a chance occasionally to play with some Latin cats, like Hector Barrero, and some guys who play strictly Latin music…
Where the trapset has a strictly defined function within the percussion.
RILEY: Exactly. But I would still slide a little New Orleans inside it anyway, a little bass drum.
So what you’re doing is perfect for the concept Wynton was looking for with the septet, or first the quintet. He’d been sort of stretching out on Modernism in the early part of the ’80s, and in this it seemed he wanted to put together a global way of looking at music historically.
RILEY: Well, it wasn’t that. It turned into that, because it just happened that Wynton… When I first joined his band, his music was like pushing and on the cutting edge of trying to expand the horizons of the music. He wasn’t interested really in going back and capturing the history. Well, I don’t think he was really interested in that at that particular time. But he says to me that when myself and Reginald came into the band, he could suddenly hear it. His music became clearer to him. The music opened up in a certain way and became clearer. When I first joined the band I’d heard all those records that Jeff Tain Watts had played on. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of rhythm and a lot of dialogue in his playing with the instruments, and I came into the band with that concept in mind as to how to approach Wynton’s music. I thought about Tain going in, because that’s who I followed. So I tried to apply that kind of influence and that kind of approach to playing. It was okay, but it really wasn’t working, and finally, after about a year I began to find my own voice, and Wynton started really listening to my voice inside of the music. Then the music took on another shape, he had different ideas about what to do with the music, and then the range of what he could do expanded.
Talk about what you think your voice was, and what it is that you think Wynton saw that he could do from hearing you.
RILEY: When I came into the band, I didn’t play a lot of drums inside of the swing. Tain played a lot of polyrhythms and stuff, and I didn’t play that way. I tried to play that way at first, and it was okay, but it wasn’t me. Then I started to play in a way that the solos was able to just speak out, and I would be more of a supportive…like a cushion under the soloist — with some interaction as well. But I think they were able to hear more. Then the fact that I was from New Orleans and I played second line stuff, he could hear… It was a different feeling. I think I brought a different feeling to the band, a feeling of more groove and dance-oriented kind of rhythms.
So you became more and more comfortable with each other, because he works all the time, and you’re working all the time together, and I guess you just get that hand-in-pocket thing.
RILEY: Yeah. I mean, as you work and time goes on, things begin to develop and things begin to gel. Everybody in the band… One thing we always stress in the band is that to be a jazz musician you have to have some humility and also some ego. But those things have to balance. I would say in working with Wynton, as many things as he’s accomplished, he still has a lot of humility. I think humility allows you to grasp information and to hear other people. So we’re always able to come together and hear each other, and in hearing each other we develop a specific sound.
As the septet evolved, it sort of dovetailed with the activities of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra. He’d bring in the information he was getting from that into the Septet, so Jelly Roll Morton arranging techniques come in, or the Monk things, Ellington things come in… It became a real global concept. I really loved that septet. You’re also playing at Jazz At Lincoln Center where you’re dealing with the whole history of the music from the inside-out. Now, presuming that what I’m saying is basically correct within your framework… I’d like you to talk about how playing with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band has affected your concept of the drums, or just you personally.
RILEY: When I first got a chance to play with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band, I got a chance to play with some of the older guys who actually played in Duke’s band. I played with Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Sir Roland Hanna was in the band, Joe Temperley (who is still in the band now), Marcus Belgrave, Joe Wilder, Jerry Dodgion. All these guys were around, and some of them had actually played with Duke. So when I got a chance to play in the band with these guys, it gave me a sense of… I really wanted to play the concept and I wanted to play it right, because I have all these guys who know what’s happening, and how it should feel and what the music should state. So I approached the music with a certain amount of pride about learning…
RILEY: That’s a good word, idiomatic. I was really trying to understand what the guys had played in that style before me. So I listened to Sam Woodyard, I listened to Sonny Greer; I would listen to those records, and I would try to capture the essence of that feeling of the music. And every time I thought about them, and playing certain pieces, I would think about how people danced to the style, and try to evoke the mood of a particular piece. That was with Duke’s stuff. I think I approach all the musics like that. We did a program on Monk. We did a program on Louis Armstrong. And with each artist that we’ve done, I’ve tried to go back and listen to their records, and understand the feeling and spirit of what their music is about. That’s pretty much how I’ve approached it.
New Orleans seems to be the only place where a musician your age or younger could capture the experience that the musicians from previous generations had, because it was part of the culture. You wouldn’t get that coming up in New York. You wouldn’t get it coming up in Chicago. You wouldn’t get it coming up in San Francisco particularly or Los Angeles or Detroit. New Orleans because Bourbon Street and the Second Line and Modern jazz…the whole history is available to the young musician as a functional experience.
RILEY: That’s very true, and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing guys in everyday kind of situations as opposed to just on the bandstand. When you see a guy who plays the drums at night, and then you see him in the daytime, who’s maybe working on the car or something, or he’s maybe at a restaurant or somewhere just hanging out and having some red beans and rice or something, or shooting the breeze at a barber shop, this kind of stuff… When you see guys in a living kind of situation, then you can understand really about the feeling of why they play what they play, and kind of understand some of the influences. So all those things are a part of it; it’s a part of why you play the way you play. I remember seeing guys like Smokey Johnson at a supper or something… They would have like Saturday night fish fries or something, and you’d be in the back, man, and the guys would be eating some potato salad and some fried fish, and they’d be playing cards, and kind of just talking trash across the table to people…maybe not even musicians. The whole picture of being there, and seeing all these kinds of things, the music that’s playing in the background, the smell of the fish that’s in the air, the smell of gumbo or something that’s in the air… All this stuff is a part of what makes me who I am, and having that experience.
Did you play with any of the piano players, like Booker or Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington?
RILEY: Yeah. I got a chance to play with Tuts Washington when I played in the burlesque club. Also I’d play some gigs with him sometimes on the side, where it would just be like piano and drums. I’d play just brushes and he’d play the piano. I got a chance to play with him at that club. I got a chance to play with Dave “Fatman” Williams at the same burlesque club. Professor Longhair was good friends with my grandmother and grandfather, and he would come to my grandmother’s house. There’s still a gash inside of the piano where he would play the piano and kick his foot to keep time. He would play like this [KICKING RIGHT FOOT SIDEWAYS] all the time. It would be the same spot. There’s a spot on my grandmother’s piano where he would kick holes in it! I also worked…even sometimes now I work with Dr. John. I’ve recorded a couple of things with him. So the New Orleans piano thing is very much part of… I’ve had a chance to do that, too. I’ve had a chance to do a lot of different things, a lot of different styles of playing.
[In 2005, when we had our second conversation, Riley had just completed his final tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.]
RILEY: Basically, it was time to leave. I need to let my own voice be spoken a little bit more. I want to play with other people and do some other things musically. It was a great experience. It was a great time. I got to play a lot of music. I got to learn about a lot of different aspects of playing music, and I got to experience some wonderful things, too. Just playing with the orchestra and being associated with the orchestra, my ability to teach and to do workshops and that kind of thing has grown. My playing has grown from that. But playing inside of a big band kept my playing very structured. Now I’m looking forward to doing other things, and playing in smaller groups, and being freer in my expression.
What are some things you feel weren’t being expressed within LCJO?
RILEY: I was very expressive when I was playing. But from a personal standpoint, being locked inside of a big band structure makes you stay inside a certain box, for lack of a better word. It keeps you confined to a certain style of play, whereas playing inside of smaller groups there’s much more freedom and flexibility and elasticity inside the structure. That’s what I want to get to. I want more elasticity and flexibility and openness to my playing.
Now, the LCJO experience has definitely enhanced the musicianship of each and every one of us who played in it. The sheer experiences that we’ve shared. Being onstage with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Phil, and going to London and playing with the London Orchestra, doing pieces like “All Rise” in those types of environments, and then turning around and playing with some Brazilian or some Cuban cats or some African cats, where you’re playing their music, the music of that culture. All those experiences have definitely enhanced our musicianship. Not only that, but just playing the book of the LCJO, which has about 200 pieces.
Didn’t you innovate a beat where you integrate the tambourine within the flow of the drumset? Wynton used that a lot in the septet, like on the piece, “Sunflowers.“
RILEY: Exactly. Yes, I guess I did kind of innovate that. I grew up playing the drums in church, and watching people play in church—and I played the drums all the time. When I was in church and wasn’t playing the drums, if there was a tambourine sitting around that nobody was playing, I would pick it up and start playing it. As I grew up, I started trying to find things I could do that would enhance the music, whatever it was. For instance, I also played washboard. I played washboard in the show One Mo’ Time, and I played bones, like two bones together…
Wynton had you doing those things in Blood On The Fields and other things, too.
RILEY: One thing I loved about Wynton is that whatever you brought to the table, it was great, because it was all about the spirit of the music. I think that was a good thing. He said, “Man, whatever you got, whatever you bring that’s part of your set, we’ll use it.” So eventually we did. Even playing cowbells and that kind of stuff, man. I brought cowbells, I brought gongs, I brought all kinds of stuff on the bandstand. But the tambourine was one of those things I was able to incorporate and play grooves on inside the drumset…to play grooves with the bass drum and the hi-hat. I always use a tambourine that has a head on it, so that you can snap the head and get a more percussive sound, like the drum or something.
I think you’re a real scientist of the drums. You seem to have investigated all the sounds on all the different drums, and how to combine them, and in a very practical way. I think the spirit of exploration is part of how you approach even the most mundane gigs. As you described the strip club gig, learning the dynamics of the trapset by doing that. It seems to me to be a characteristic among New Orleans drummers.
RILEY: Another thing I think we all have in common is that we don’t hear the music in separate entities. It’s all one thing, and it’s all one groove. It’s just another type of groove. When you hear different music, I still incorporate it; I still say, “Well, it’s just another groove.” What you do is, you go in and find the nuances of that particular style or that particular groove, and you play inside of that nuance. So it’s not anything that’s really mystifying.
It’s not mystifying, but it seems very much to descend from the culture of the city and what you do as a working musician in New Orleans. Those opportunities present themselves naturally in the culture of New Orleans.
RILEY: It’s very true. The culture here is very strong, and the drums are such a big part of the culture here. So it’s very natural for a drummer to be influenced in the way… It’s undeniable. It can’t be denied because the influence is so strong.
Are you the last generation of drummers who picked that stuff up? Do the younger drummers approach things like you, or were their early influences more the broader world? I don’t mean that you weren’t influenced by the broader world, but you came up watching people like Freddie Kohlman and Smokey Jackson, these people with deep roots in the culture? Is the next generation of drummers doing that, or have things changed?
RILEY: A few of them. But no, I don’t think a lot of them do The ones who are serious, like Jason Marsalis or Adonis Rose, have gone and checked people out who played before them. I guess in a lot of ways they look at… I’m 48 years old. These guys are still around 30, so they look at people like myself or Johnny Vidacovich or Herman Ernest…now we have become the mentors. So a lot of the guys aren’t as in tune to the history as perhaps I was, or some of the older guys or guys my age. But the history was still living at the time.