HERLIN RILEY QUINTET: SUNDAY, APRIL 24—ZATARAIN’S WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 2:45 P.M.
When Herlin Riley enters a stage, he often wields a tambourine and always sports a big smile as he heads to his drum set. Like so many musical aspects of his life, that instinct derives from his childhood experiences. As a youngster, he would watch the “sisters” in church play the instrument and imitate what he saw. Riley took it a giant step further by introducing the tambourine to the jazz world. Significantly, the drummer is heard beating and ringing the tambourine on trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning work Blood on the Fields.
“Jazz music and the concept of jazz were never foreign to me because I grew up hearing it,” says the master drummer, who was raised by his grandparents Frank and Alice Lastie in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.
“As a toddler, my uncles [saxophonist] David Lastie, [trumpeter] Melvin Lastie and [drummer] Walter Lastie had a band, the Lastie Brothers Combo. They would rehearse at my grandparents’ house and with me being there, I got to hear the music. I heard ‘Moanin’’ and ‘Sister Sadie.’ So music was always a part of me.”
Riley’s uncles and grandfather, who played drums in the church, were his first influences in his upward-spiraling career of over 40 years. At 59, Riley is considered one of the finest and most unique jazz drummers in the world and stands strongly in New Orleans’ impressive drum lineage, one that includes Ed Blackwell, James Black, Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, Idris Muhammad and more. Those legends too were influential in his development.
“I take information when I can and from wherever I can,” says Riley, citing drummer Ernie Ellie’s brush technique. He was also impressed by the way Wilbert “Junkyard Dog” Arnold would muffle the sustaining ring of two cymbals while maintaining the integrity of the rhythm.
Three times a week, a youthful Riley would head to the Guiding Star Spiritual Church and always sit next to his grandfather at the drums. His mother, Betty Ann Lastie, who was always part of his life though he didn’t live with her, would be on the organ. “When he got up from the drums to talk or whatever, I couldn’t wait to get on the drum set to play,” Riley recalls. By the time he was 11 years old or so, he naturally was getting into popular music and artists like James Brown and Ray Charles. “So one day at church I went into a ‘Cold Sweat’ beat and my grandfather gave me this dirty look and said, ‘You don’t do that in here—play it straight, play it straight.’” His grandfather, who was born in 1902 and in 1913 was in the Colored Waifs Home at the same time as Louis Armstrong, never played outside of the church. He did, however, know the ins and outs of New Orleans street beats and showed his grandson how to play the second line rhythms that have remained with the drummer to this day.
Knowing his nephew was interested in playing trumpet, Riley’s uncle, trumpeter Melvin Lastie, who was in New York performing with percussionist Willie Bobo and saxophonist King Curtis and was good friends with saxophone giant Ornette Coleman, sent him a cornet. That’s when the then 12-year-old Riley switched his focus from drums to the horn.
“He was my mentor—someone I tried to emulate,” says Riley, who played trumpet throughout his elementary, junior high and high school years. He got a scholarship to Mississippi Valley State for the trumpet. “I still played drums, but I didn’t study them,” explains Riley, who attended George Washington Carver High School, where the noted music educator Yvonne Busch directed the band. “Being a trumpet player in the band I learned to read and I was dealing with harmony and form.”
While at Carver he met guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Danny Barker, who encouraged him to join his newly formed Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band. The group used to rehearse at trumpeter Leroy Jones’ house and Barker would teach the youngsters the New Orleans jazz repertoire. “[Trumpeter] Mr. Charlie Barbarin, who is [trombonist] Lucien Barbarin’s father, was always with Mr. Barker in those days,” Riley recalls. “He was Mr. Barker’s sidekick.”
Tunes weren’t all that Barker, a born entertainer and a witty individual, taught the young band members. Riley credits him, along with his uncles, for his understanding of the importance of bringing a sense of fun to a bandstand. The drummer is now renowned for being very animated and for his ability to connect with an audience not only with his great skill and technique on the instrument but with his lively personality. For instance, if he makes a particularly hot move or accomplishes a stunning solo, he’ll often look out into the crowd and flash a grin as if to say, “Hey, did you catch that?”
“My association with Danny Barker brought that on,” Riley acknowledges. “He would say, ‘Act like you want to be here. Smile at the people. Don’t come looking like you’ve been sucking on lemons.’”
Return to the drums
“All my uncles had fun when they played their instruments,” Riley continues. “They would also talk to me and they told me, ‘Man, it’s not what you play, it’s what you say. Play music that touches people; play in a way that you can communicate and relate to them.’”
As a young trumpeter, watching footage of Louis Armstrong and seeing the joy he played with and shared always made Riley smile. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like that.’”
Soon after Riley graduated from high school and “for a minute” attended Mississippi Valley State —“it was in the woods, it was too slow for me”—he landed a job at Bourbon Street’s 500 Club. He was informed about a spot opening up by his uncle, saxophonist David Lastie, who was playing with vocalist Clarence “Frogman” Henry at the nearby La Strada club. This marked the first step of Riley’s return to the drums. He began subbing one night a week for the regular drummer at the burlesque club and then for the trombone player another night a week.“As fate has it,” Riley explains, “the drummer and the trombone player left the band at the same time. So they hired me as the permanent drummer because I knew the routines of the dancers.
I happened to go down to Sears one day and I saw [trumpeter] Wendell Brunious and he was selling fishing poles and tackle,” he continues. “I asked him, ‘Are you still playing your horn?’ ‘Yeah, man, I still play.’ So I told him to come down to the 500 Club and audition because I had the gig and they needed a horn player. That [employment at Sears] is the last day job Wendell ever had.”
During this time, Riley spent his days attending Southern University in Baton Rouge and began playing a lot more drums. “I got less and less calls for the trumpet,” he recalls. After the 500 Club gig, he began playing with the Johnny Bachemin Trio at the Monteleone and Le Pavillon hotels and then traveled to South Carolina with the group. Next up was laying down the rhythm with trumpeter Al Hirt at his club on Bourbon
Street. In 1981, Riley headed to London as a member of the cast of producer Vernel Bagneris’ musical One Mo’ Time. Some years later, Riley would return to the theatrical realm, performing in the musical Satchmo, which debuted in New Orleans.
Rhythmically and tonally, Riley’s drums recall Africa, a trait he attributes to growing up in New Orleans, a rich musical link of the African diaspora. “I think that has always been a part of me,” he agrees. “There are a lot of things that, to me, are subliminal, that are just a part of the culture and being in this place. New Orleans had Congo Square. I’m a descendent of the people who played in Congo Square—my grandfather’s father grew up in New Orleans. As I got older I started recognizing and embracing that fact. In doing so, I just started playing it.”
“I became more serious about playing drums and exploring other music,” he continues, mentioning a local Latin jazz group he performed with that included several Cuban percussionists. “Those guys taught me about clave and how they got the ‘ooh’ sound out of the congas.” Riley uses the technique to get his own “ooh” tone by wetting his fingers and sliding them across the drum head. Creating those compelling lower vibrations on his drums never fails to excite and intrigue audiences.
Riley is very specific about the tuning of his drums to D. This consistency, he says, helps him to get to his sound immediately wherever he may be. “I know where my pitches are,” he explains. He attributes the tuning to his first days performing with piano great Ahmad Jamal and observing that the last notes of the legend’s signature composition, “Poinciana,” were A and D. “That kind of spun me to tune my drums like that with intervals associated with the trumpet.”
Many perceive that the way Riley tunes his drums further evoke Africa and the diaspora that, coming from New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward, are his genuine roots.
“Over the years of playing, I’ve learned how to manipulate the drums and get different sounds out of them. I’m consciously thinking about that and being true to who I am and true to the things that are in my spirit. I’m thinking about the freedom of African rhythms when I’m playing.”
In 1982, just following his performances in One Mo’ Time, Riley became the next in an impressive list of New Orleans drummers to perform with Ahmad Jamal. Riley did two stints with the pianist—the first from 1982 to 1987, when he left to join trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ quintet, and again starting in 2009 following his departure from Marsalis’ bands. He remained with Jamal until the pianist’s retirement in 2014.
Playing under such great leaders as Jamal and Marsalis absolutely impacted Riley’s music and life.
“I’m still being influenced by Ahmad Jamal,” Riley declares. “I’m still soaking up the knowledge from him. One of the main things that I took from that experience was the level of intensity, the level of seriousness that came over him when he sat down at the piano. It would be at the same level whether we were rehearsing or playing for one or two people or for 10,000 people. It’s something I’ve tried to adopt in my own playing over the years.”
The first time Riley and Marsalis met was when both trumpeters played with Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band. For years, neither acknowledged—or really believed—that they stood side-by-side in the youthful ensemble. It wasn’t until much later that a picture turned up and the issue was resolved. “I’m maybe two feet taller than Wynton,” says Riley, who figures at the time he was probably 14 years old and Marsalis was about 10.
Their next meeting was when both Riley and Wynton were in London—the drummer with One Mo’ Time and the trumpeter, along with his brother, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, playing with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. They introduced themselves to each other when Riley went to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club to catch Blakey. In turn, the Marsalis brothers got a taste of Riley’s drumming on music from the 1920s when they went to his show.
“When Wynton came to Fat Tuesdays in New York where I was working with Ahmad, he saw me playing a whole other genre,” Riley recalls. “With Ahmad, I was playing straight-up and all over the place.”
Time went on and eventually the two New Orleans musicians would meet again.
Their next encounter was at the 1986 Jazz Fest when Riley, along with bassist Reginald Veal, performed with pianist Ellis Marsalis. Wynton had his own set that year and came over to sit in with his father’s trio. He obviously dug the Riley/Veal combination and called his father for permission to hire them. Riley remembers that Ellis said, “These are professional musicians—of course you can call them.”
In 1988, Riley jumped at the chance to join Wynton’s quintet that featured Veal, pianist Marcus Roberts and saxophonist Todd Williams. The group grew to a sextet with the addition of saxophonist Wess Anderson and a septet when trombonist Wycliffe Gordon entered the fray. They all, including Riley, became members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Riley, who spent 17 years in Marsalis’ ensembles, was affected by the experience in a wide variety of ways. “One of the most important things is that Wynton gave me the confidence to teach,” Riley relates. “He’d say, ‘Man, we have to make more of an impact on this music than just playing gigs. We have to start teaching people. In the next city we’re going to have workshops.’”
“I was like, ‘Wynton, I don’t know how to teach, man,’” Riley remembers. “Nobody taught me how to play drums. I was pretty much self-taught. What am I going to teach them? Wynton said, ‘You play drums, right?’ Yeah. ‘Well, just tell ‘em what you do.’”
“I started having to formulate into words what I knew how to do naturally on the drums,” Riley says. “Having to put those things into words made me become more aware of what I was doing. It taught me how to convey my ideas to people.” Since that first time offering his expertise, Riley has gone on to head master classes, clinics and workshops at the University of New Orleans, Northwestern University and Juilliard. A very young New Orleans drummer, Joe Dyson, who is now highly regarded in his craft, was one of Riley’s students. Riley’s natural style of delivering the essentials of drumming—particularly New Orleans style—shines on 1993’s outstanding video compilation, New Orleans Drummers, which included individual statements and instructions by Earl Palmer, Herman Ernest and Johnny Vidacovich.
Riley appreciates and treasures his 17-year association with Wynton Marsalis while saying that everything runs its course. “He is a visionary and he has a work ethic to make it happen.” He had numerous plans, says Riley, but was really adamant about building a structure acoustically specific for jazz music.
“I wanted to stick around and be a part of the band until after the building was built,” says Riley, who left the ensemble in 2005, a year after the facility, Jazz at Lincoln Center, was complete. “I remember when all this stuff was just a vision in his head so I wanted to be a part of the whole development.”
“Wynton and I talked about my leaving and he said, ‘Man, your light is too bright to be stuck in the back of a big band. You need to be out doing your own thing.’ He encouraged me.”
“After playing with Wytnon’s bands for so long, I didn’t want to commit to anybody’s band on a long-term basis,” says Riley, who rejoined Jamal, freelanced and pursued a leadership role in developing his music. In 1999 and 2005, Riley released two fine albums on the Criss Cross label that boasted primarily material from his pen.
Riley’s exciting new CD, New Direction, on the Mack Avenue label, finds the drummer in somewhat of a mentorship position himself, as he’s working with a cast of young musicians. The configuration was purposefully patterned after the ensembles of the great Art Blakey. “Art was the older guy and the young guys made up the Messengers,” Riley explains. “I feel an obligation to pass on the history.”
The drummer had been more or less filing away the names and numbers of musicians—like pianist Emmet Cohen and bassist Russell Hall—who impressed him when he heard them on the New York scene. Riley was familiar with Godwin Louis from the time when the saxophonist was in New Orleans as a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
“When I was thinking about putting personnel together for the session, all these guys came to mind,” says Riley, while also mentioning trumpeter Bruce Harris, percussionist Pedrito Martinez and special guest and longtime friend guitarist Mark Whitfield. “What I love about them is that they give me the same kind of feeling as I had playing with Wynton’s septet. We were like family. They really enjoy being with each other. If you have harmony off of the bandstand, of course you should have harmony on the bandstand.”
All the musicians on the album except for Martinez will be performing with Riley at the Jazz Fest. They’ll be offering up such great Riley- composed tunes as “Connection to Congo Square,” which takes the music around the African diaspora from the Lower Ninth Ward to New York and beyond. Riley says he is now always writing, urged on, in part, by the late great Allen Toussaint, the man in New Orleans who wrote “the” songs.
About three years ago, Toussaint came to one of Riley’s gigs in New York. After the show, Riley remembers Toussaint coming up to him and saying ‘Man, I was so impressed with your writing—it is so beautiful. You need to do more records.’ I was kind of reluctant and then he said, ‘Man, you’re robbing the public from hearing all of this music. You need to get your stuff out.’”
On New Direction Herlin Riley is definitely getting his stuff out—as a drummer, composer and bandleader. Just as he has been influenced by all of those who came before him, he’s passing on his heritage and knowledge to another generation of musicians. Being associated with Riley, they can’t help but inherit the joy of playing he understood via his family, the intensity he saw and adopted from Jamal and the importance of camaraderie and teaching he gained from his association from Wynton.
“The art form is the queen bee and we are the workers,” says Riley of how he envisions the relationship between jazz and the musicians who perform it.
“I’m happy when I’m playing,” says the ever-smiling Herlin Riley. “I am living a childhood dream playing drums. To be able to have a career and support a family playing drums, I don’t take that lightly at all.”