Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.
Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):
TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music. You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?
BR: I was four when they came. I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.
TP: Were you playing organized ball?
BR: Yeah, I played in school.
TP: Where was that?
BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it. I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…
TP: Were you a guard, a forward?
BR: A guard. In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall. I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up. Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.
TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?
BR: Yeah, and Fifties.
TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?
BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school. I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to. So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me. So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon. The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time. I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.
BR: Yes. But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…
TP: You were a paratrooper?
BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah. I was in the last of the Black battalions.
TP: Where were you stationed?
BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.
TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?
BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area. We weren’t on the main post with the buildings. We were over into the Second World War barracks. Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops. So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence. He said that was a very good idea. We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade. When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.” So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!
TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?
BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan. That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot. We used to jam. And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing. This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something. The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.
TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.
BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.
TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?
BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar. On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions. So you’d never know who was going to come in. Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play. Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.
TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…
BR: Not right away. When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child. So I got a job. I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing. It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent. So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.” So she really kind of helped me step off. I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.
TP: The validation.
TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…
BR: Oh, yes.
TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?
BR: Yes. We had a fellow named Phil Wright. He was a drummer, and also a teacher. That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor. We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together. Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.
TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.
BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual. So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in. So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different direction that they wanted to go into. For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each. I didn’t have to say, “This is…” Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated. But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this. This is a little bit too difficult. I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.” It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke. “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.” I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table. Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.
TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…
BR: Nobody’s business!
TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.
BR: Right. This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night. Usually that was going down to Minton’s!
[MUSIC: Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]
TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.
BR: That’s right. It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists. You have three different styles here. You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two. He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat. So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.
TP: But it’s very subtle.
BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose. That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be. It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat. What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it. The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand. This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things. I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do. So his beat was really very technically efficient. He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.
TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.
BR: A sound. That’s so important. I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound. An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists, Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.
TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.
BR: Yeah. When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do. But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo. Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.” And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time. So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound. Because now I know what I want to hear. It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.
TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…
BR: Yeah. Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound. Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound. So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.
TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing. Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.
BR: To what you have today, yeah.
TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.
BR: Each one of them.
TP: Talk a bit about the scene.
BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into. Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing. So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until. So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch. Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.
TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.
BR: Right. So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.
TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…
BR: Opened him up. The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.” [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up. He framed the door for you. When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do. You find the things that you want to fit into this room.
TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.
BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners. So you had the full scope. You had to do like a vaudeville show plus. I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…
TP: Talk about those experiences.
BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people. This was all educational. Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.” So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.
TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.
BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks. In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there. Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation. When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud. They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room. So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal. That’s all she would let me bring to the gig. So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal. Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks. There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name. He played with Woody Herman, too. Well, it will come back to me.
TP: Which room was this?
BR: This was a room called the Composer. And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room. I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.
TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.
BR: Yes, more or less. Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places. Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that. But professionally I started in ’56. The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston. And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street. So I was making that circuit…
TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.
BR: The supper club thing, yeah. And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music. That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.
TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.
BR: Yeah. Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.
TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.
BR: Oh, Bu and I…
TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.
BR: [LAUGHS] Oh, yes. Well, Bu was marvelous. He was always encouraging. He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know. Papa Jo Jones was the same way. Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand. He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming. He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a dime next to you and run out.” That means, “Call me.” [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.
TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.
BR: Always. Always.
[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]
TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?
BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.
BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended. Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated. Because Philly just was a multi-talented person. He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing. What I really loved about him were the surprises. Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise. Like Art. Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art. Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.
TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…
BR: One time.
TP: …and then he’d interpret it…
BR: Interpret it, right. Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.
TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…
BR: In other bands, right. Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on. Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.
TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.
BR: That’s right.
TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change. It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it. But all of the great drummers did that. And all of the great bands had that kind of situation. As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be. Because that’s the type of person he was. Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great. But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important! They made sure that those things worked. Never mind the individualism. They made sure that the band sounded good. That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.
TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.
BR: Small groups.
TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing. Were you influenced by big band drums? Were you interested in that?
BR: Oh, yes. Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer. I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this. I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…
TP: And then Shadow Wilson.
BR: Then Shadow, right. Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band. I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow. But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying. And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing. Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know. I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound. As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance. That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music. They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing. That’s what we were doing when I started up, man. People would get up and actually dance. So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.
TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…
BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance! I’ve seen people get up and dance. Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!
TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin. How did that come about for you?
BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant. John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.” So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport. Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…” He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it! “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking. And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way. When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer. Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band. Come on down. We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.” So I said, “Okay.” So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all. We didn’t hit it off at all. For some reason he was just cold. I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.” Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t. So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland. It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me. And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer. So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on. At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.” He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA. I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”, and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering. So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA. So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.” I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.” So that’s when I really started…
TP: You got the mood.
BR: I got the mood, right. Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me. And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin. It was a great band. I really enjoyed that band.
TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis. He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…
BR: Yeah, because he played differently. As most guys used to say, he played backwards.
TP: What do they mean by that?
BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite. And he had that Ben Webster sound. Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences. He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand. If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior. He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time. When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from. You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people. I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them. It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.
TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.
TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.
TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes. He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…
BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill. It was a helluva trio that he had. We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio. So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet. Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.
TP: It was a very, very popular band.
TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s. Which brings up another point in the development of the music. In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…
BR: Chase you out!
TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.
BR: No. We became real favorites at Minton’s. I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.” I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.” So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see! The place was filled. So I had to call my wife up. I said, “Don’t look for me back. I can’t hardly get in the club!” It was loaded. We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band. And the music we played, you wanted to dance. We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance. And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day. Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance. The Messengers, dance music. It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.
TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show. How late did you go? Four or five sets?
BR: Four o’clock.
TP: Last set ended at 4.
BR: Yeah. Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]
TP: 9 to 4.
TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?
TP: Where were some of those?
BR: Well, one was right downstairs. Then there was another down a couple of blocks. So there was always somewhere to play. Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot. So you had somewhere to go all the time.
[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]
TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down. And that was a complicated piece! You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.
BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end. It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.
TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.
BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.
TP: “John S” was from The Bridge. Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums. You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern. What do you remember about that record? I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.
BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things. I didn’t bring that other album…
TP: The Kerry Dancers.
BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing. So it was like another band within the band. Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him. I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.
TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.
BR: That’s right.
TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!
TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.
BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band. This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.
TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that? That’s hard to do.
BR: What I did, I never watched my hands. I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing. I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast. But it worked.
TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…
BR: Made it easier, yeah. There again we get to the same thing. When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing. I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.
TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley. The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.
BR: For years.
TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.
BR: No, no. I hired him.
TP: Well, let’s be chronological. You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.
BR: Yes. I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood. But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play. All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street. Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson. Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead. Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street. When you get off, come down and sit in with us.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down. I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.” I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.” Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.” So he said, “Come over and play.” I said, “Okay.” So we went up and we played. So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.” He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?” I said, “I really don’t know.” He said, “Well, I’ll call him.” So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording. When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.” I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.” He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was. I said, “I don’t know. I’ll ask him.” He said, “Let me call.” So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful. But Lock didn’t like that too well! But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.
TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there. It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.
BR: Right. And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.” Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge. What was interesting, we went to California by train. It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters. So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day. That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together. By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.
TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.
BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful. It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes. So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos. We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on. So every night we had three changes.
TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!
BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!
TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…
BR: Yes, he was. Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there. I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music. I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.
TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.
BR: That’s right, yeah.
TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?
BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter. I met Cannonball in San Francisco. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time. He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.” I said, “No kidding!” So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.” So I imagine that had to be Miles. I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up. I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious. So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk. Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking. So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going. That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby. He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke. So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.” So I got in a cab and went down. He still didn’t speak to me. So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing. So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?” I said, “No, I can wait for the check.” He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.” He says, “Do you have your passport?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:
TP: That was it?
BR: I was in the band!
TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?
BR: Well, I never spoke to him before. We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.
TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?
BR: A record. I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach. It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time. And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”
TP: Did you hear Monk in person? Did you go to the Five-Spot?
BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.
TP: So you dug the music and…
BR: Oh yeah. When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.” I just felt that that was going to be it for me. Then when Frankie left, I was there.
TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!
BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.
TP: Okay. And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you. We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley. We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia. You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.
BR: Oh, it drove us crazy. This is my first recording with him also.
TP: This is the one that he called you to?
BR: Yes. Is Butch Warren the bassist?
TP: Butch Warren.
BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie. See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band. I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know. We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe. There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.” So I’m trapped here. I have to play a drum solo. But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years. So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes. So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?” That was the first test that I had to go through. I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first. I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.
TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.
BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been. It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.
TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?
BR: That was the beauty of it. He would only play what he thought you could handle. Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on. But he never would try to embarrass you.
[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]
TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.
BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time. He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things. I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.
TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?
BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing. Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.
TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.
TP: What did you mean by that?
BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it. So he would play it first sometimes. It was really something to see the both of them in action. It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.
TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?
BR: He left things out that normally people would play. He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with. Either you use the space or you put something in there. I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time. I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances. Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.
TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…
BR: Shuffles, right.
TP: …and church type of things. Talk a bit about his sources.
BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things. He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in. He played all those things. So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people. So this is what you get from him. You get a whole history of different things. He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.
TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.
BR: Not the same tempo. That’s what made his music so interesting all the time. Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo. He was a great one for playing in between meters. He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.” He played in between all of those!
TP: That gig lasted how long?
BR: Almost five years.
TP: From 1964 to 1969…
BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today. When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.
TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.
BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that. And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players. This is tricky music.
[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]
TP: Say a few words about recent activities. You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.
BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes. We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished. Also we’re doing a series of concerts. We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.
[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]