Her­lin Ri­ley

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...

Rhythm - - THE RHYTHM INTERVIEW - Words: David West

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...”

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