Herlin Riley tells Rhythm about his journey from playing trumpet in burlesque bars to joining the hottest drum seat in jazz with Winton Marsalis and beyond...
Just like the city of New Orleans, the history of Herlin Riley’s family is defined by music. His grandfather Frank Lastie played with Louis Armstrong at the Waif’s Home in New Orleans in 1913. His uncles, David, Melvin, and Walter ‘Popee’ Lastie, were all professional musicians in the Lastie Brothers Combo and Walter played with Fats Domino. The Lastie Brothers rehearsed at his grandparents’ house where Professor Longhair and Dr John would stop by. His uncle Jessie Hill had an R&B hit with ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’ and Trombone Shorty is his cousin, so music flows through the family tree across the generations.
Riley first came to prominence playing with jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal starting in 1982, before he landed arguably the hottest drum seat in jazz when he joined Wynton Marsalis’ band in 1988. Marsalis, like Riley, hails from a family steeped in the music of New Orleans and Riley has appeared on more than 30 recordings with the trumpeter in both small groups and in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Possessing an unsurpassed fluency in the distinctive street beats of New Orleans, the
“I always approach the drums from a melodic sense and not to just beat out rhythms or show off chops and the dexterity you have, how fast you can play. That’s not important”
vocabulary of jazz, and rhythm and blues, Riley says his goal is, “To allow yourself to be like water, to fit into any situation you’re presented with.”
Before you played with Ahmad Jamal, you were working in London. What brought you across the Atlantic?
“Well, I did a show called OneMo’Time in the West End of London, right off Shaftesbury Avenue. I was there for six months and every night when I got off, I made my way to Ronnie Scott’s. I checked out the music of all the musicians who came through there like Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Betty Carter. A lot of the acts were from New York, I’d never gone to New York by then, so it was an opportunity for me to see a lot of peopleI’d heard on records and read about. Art Blakey came through and I got to meet him.During my meeting with him I met Wynton Marsalis. We had known each other through our reputations, but we’d never met. Later on, he called me to play in his band.”
Where does that distinctive New Orleans sense of groove come from?
“I think it’s a combination of things. During the time of slavery there was Congo Square. That was the only place in North America where the African drum wasn’t taken away from the slaves. A lot of the feeling and the intensity for the music has been passed on down the generations. This is my own personal theory, but I think that’s part of it. The music has always had a very specific social function in the city and that has contributed to the culture of the city and in many ways to the culture of America because of the drums. When you hear how the brass bands syncopated the marches in a way that has become the signature New Orleans street beat, I think that’s very significant. The drum set as we know it was invented here in New Orleans by two guys, Dee Dee Chandler and John Robichaux. When they developed the bass drum foot pedal, that was the key component to the development of the drum set as we know it.”
Speaking of Congo Square, there’s a track on your album NewDirection called ‘Connection To Congo Square’.
“It’s hard to really make any true identifiable connection to Congo Square because there are no recordings of what went on there, so it’s all about the imagination. If you notice, I don’t have any piano on that particular piece, I only have the trumpet and the saxophone, the bass, drums and the congas. It’s basically instruments that I think they had, maybe not the saxophone, because the saxophone was not invented yet, but the trumpet certainly was. I’m just going off in my imagination for that particular style and the piece doesn’t really have a true form. I took a motif that I wrote and I gave it to the horns.The drums and the bass and congas are free. I used the rhythm changes as a bridge, as a little release, but the rest of the song is improvisational.”
You’ve brought a lot of attention to the tambourine in jazz.
“When I joined Wynton’s band, he said to me, ‘Hey man, you play some auxiliary percussion?’ From my days playing in that OneMo’Time show in London, I played the washboard, I played the cowbells, the woodblock, a choke cymbal. Growing up here in New Orleans, I was in church a lot with my grandparents and I learned to play the tambourine in church. When I got with Wynton’s band in ’88, he said, ‘Man, bring everything you’ve got to the table,’ so I started incorporating all these different instruments into playing his music. One of the things that stood out was the tambourine and he started writing music that featured me playing the tambourine. We did BloodOn
TheFields, he wrote something that featured the tambourine, we did a record called InThisHouse,On
ThisMorning, which was a depiction of a church so I played some tambourine on that. He wrote a piece called ‘Sunflowers’, I played tambourine in a 5/4 rhythm on that, so the tambourine took on a life of its own in my working with Wynton. Because Wynton is such a high-profile jazz musician, the sound of the tambourine began to get heard on jazz records. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but between Wynton’s writing and my playing the tambourine, we introduced the tambourine to jazz. Now I’ve noticed a lot of drummers playing tambourine.”
Many musicians who grew up in church had parents or grandparents who didn’t approve of jazz because it was secular music. One of your early jobs was playing in a strip joint, what did your family think of that?
“My grandfather and my grandmother were very strong church people. My grandfather never played the drums outside of church, but his sons were all professional musicians, David, Malcolm and Walter Lastie. My uncle David played with Frogman Henry and Frogman Henry was playing on Bourbon Street. There was a job right across the street from the La Strada Club where they were playing. He said to me, ‘There’s a job at The 500 Club,’ which was a burlesque club. ‘It’s seven nights a week and the drummer and the trumpet player just need someone to play one night a week for them so they can have a night off.’ I auditioned and I got the job as the drummer andI auditioned again and I got to play on the trumpet to give both those guys a night off. It so happened that both the guys quit at the same time and they hired me as the drummer on the job. Mind you, my
“I want to have some connection to the people listening to me play that makes them feel something, a sense of joy, a sense of life”
grandparents didn’t know exactly where I was working, they just knew I was playing music somewhere in the French Quarter. When they hired me as the regular drummer, I started getting less calls to play the trumpet and more and more calls to play the drums. That’s how my professional drumming career got started.”
Your playing is so melodic. How do you tune your drums?
“I always think that the drums are a musical instrument and I always think about the music before I think about the drums. The drums have to serve the music. I always approach the drums from a melodic sense and not to just beat out rhythms or show off chops and the dexterity you have, how fast you can play. That’s not important. My uncles always told me years ago, it’s not what you play, it’s what you say when you play. I want to have some connection to the people listening to me play that makes them feel something, a sense of joy, a sense of life. When I’m playing a solo, most times I sing the melody in my head and I try to play something as if a horn player would be playing over it, painting a picture inside the form of the melody. As far as my tuning goes, because of my days on the trumpet, the trumpet is a bugle and whatever valve you press on a trumpet, you’re
always going to get the same intervals and it’s going to sound like Reveille. That’s a major chord and the low note is the fifth of the scale, the second note would be the root, the third note would be the third of the scale and the top note would be octave to the low note. I tune to a D chord and the reason I chose the D chord is from my years playing with Ahmad Jamal. His big hit was ‘Poinciana’ and that’s written in the key of D. Going from the bottom up it’s A, D, F#, A. I always tune to those intervals and oftentimes I’m thrust into a situation where I have to use backline drums, so that gives me a specific tuning system. It also gives me a specific sound.I know exactly what pitches I’m going for with each drum and it helps me to tune with efficiency, clarity and speed.”
Listening to Cassandra Wilson’s SilverPony album, your brushwork on ‘Lover Come Back To Me’ is wonderful. Where do your brushwork ideas come from?
“Doing my work with OneMo’Time, that was the show gig, I started honing my skills on the brushes.As you get older you start developing more brush techniques, listening to Elvin Jones play the brushes, Ed Thigpen, but then I checked out a video from one of my peers. Clayton Cameron has a beautiful brushes video, The
LivingArtOfBrushes. I picked up some pointers from the video, but most of my brushwork has come from my experiences and trying to create a certain sound.
“The drums are a musical instrument and I think about the music before I think about the drums. The drums have to serve the music.”
Someone who’s blind would never know how you’re creating that sound, they’re just hearing it, so I want to create a sound with the brushes that has some cohesiveness to it, that makes sense. I never studied the drums, I never had any lessons other than when I was a little boy my grandfather put the drumsticks in my hands and I beat out rhythms on the kitchen table with butter knives, or my uncle Walter ‘Popee’ Lastie showing me how to use your fingers and wrists for playing fast. Other than that, I never had any kind of drum lessons, so all the drumming skills I’ve acquired have been through watching people and the experience of engaging with the drum set itself.”
Did it change your life when you joined Wynton’s band? He was the biggest name in jazz in 1988.
“It changed my life in many ways. The first thing is that I’ve always been a person that has a family. I got married when I was 18, my first child was born when I was 19. My wife and I are still together, we have five children, and as a musicianI was concerned about how I was going to raise my children, educate them, get them through school, through college, maintain the household. Wynton’s band gave me an opportunity because he was such a high-profile figure, so I had a steady income with him. In the beginning I was on a salary whether I worked or not, but I tell you he worked a lot. It wasn’t like we were sitting around doing nothing. Sometimes I would be gone from my family for a long time but in the process I was able to support them and keep my family intact. The second impact is that he gave me exposure to a larger audience. I’m still riding off that exposure that I gained with him. I got good exposure with Ahmad Jamal, but it doubled or tripled whenI started with Wynton because he was doing more things at that particular time. The third thing is from an educational standpoint. I got these jobs at Juilliard and NorthWestern and the University Of New Orleans because of my association with Wynton and the fact is I never took drum lessons, as I told you earlier, I’m pretty much self-taught. Wynton said to us at one point, ‘Listen, when we go into these cities, we have to do more to have an impact on jazz, so we have to go in there and do workshops and masterclasses, and then we’re going to do a culminating concert.’ I said to him, ‘Wynton, I don’t know how to teach, I didn’t study the drum set.’ He said, ‘You play the drums, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, give them something.’ I had to really stop and think about whatI was doing, how I was developing certain sounds, playing certain grooves. It made me think about whatI was doing and in doing so it gave me some tools for teaching. When you start to teach you begin to learn some things yourself. I started learning more about what I was doing, how to convey what I was doing through conversations and not just playing it. I could always play but now I have to think about whatI’m playing and be able to put it into words so the next drummer can understand what’s going on. I guess that was the three ways he helped me, a steady income, the exposure as a musician, and also from an educational aspect, reading and being able to teach music.”
What’s on your schedule now?
“I just recorded another CD, should be coming out sometime this year, called PerpetualOptimism. This past weekend I did a tribute toThelonious Monk, which was at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I was the bandleader, you can see it onYouTube if you put in ‘Crescent City Monk Herlin Riley’. I’ll be doing more things as a leader, I’m looking to do more programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’m doing more teaching, more workshops at universities. I just did one in Texas at the University of Austin and one in San Antonio. I’m doing something tomorrow night at Tulane University with the students here in New Orleans and I’m doing some other recordings. I did a recording with Dr John yesterday. I just did a documentary about the history of New Orleans drumming, celebrating the city of New Orleans’ tricentennial. I’m not letting the grass grow under my feet. I’m having a great time in my life.
“Being a professional musician, this is something I prayed for as a kid and it’s all coming to fruition. I’m not sure where it’s going to take me butI’m trying to engage with the music and the drumming as much as I can and so far, so good.”
Jazz drummer Herlin Riley backing up Wynton Marsalis during a Jazz at Lincoln Center performance
Herlin with the New Orleans Nu Legends at the 2015 MLK Jazz Journey concert, 2015, New Orleans
The Art Of Listening“It’s a challenge to listen while playing. Now it’s easy to hear stuff, but hearing is different from listening. When you’re hearing, it can be noise in the background. If you hear a conversation in the next room and you wanted to know what was going on, you’d really listen. When you tune in and focus, you can engage with what’s going on inside the music.”
Jason Marsalis, Herlin Riley and Shannon Powell performing live on stage as part of the Max Roach Tribute at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 4, 2008
Herlin with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, 2006, Harrah’s Casino Theater in New Orleans
“Being a professional musician, this is something I prayed for...”