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Ben Riley's Monk Legacy

By Published: November 7, 2006

AAJ: And that was the It's Monk's Time (Columbia, 1964) record?

BR: Yeah, the first one he did for Columbia.

AAJ: And did you have any music or anything?

BR: Nothing! The man never spoke and he just played ...

AAJ: He just played and you had to fit in?

BR: Right! So we're going to London, to the Royal Festival Hall and [British saxophonist] Ronnie Scott was the opening band for us at the Royal Festival Hall. No rehearsals! I told him, "Man, look Thelonious, what should I wear? He looked at me and said, "Be as sharp as you can. [laughs] I said, "When are we going to rehearse? He said, "What do you want to do, learn how to cheat? He said, "You already know how to play right. Now play wrong and make it right. And he just walked away.

So we get to the Royal Festival Hall, the place is loaded, full up, all these universities and people from all the music conservatories sitting there—big old Rolls Royces and Bentleys double parked outside. And I'm nervous as wreck because the man had never said nothing,' still ain't said nothin'—we flew the whole ocean and he didn't say nothin' [laughing] because he was sitting in business class and we were back in coach. But he did have us stay in the same hotel. He told [impresario] George Wein, "You have to put them in the same hotel 'cause if I want to talk to them or tell them something, I don't want to go on no phone or get no cab going looking for them. So, we were in the same hotel.

We get to the Royal Festival Hotel and the man plays "Don't Blame Me,, a ballad, the first tune, and jumps up and says, "Drum solo. [laughs] Thank God I had been playing the east side rooms with Hank Jones and all those piano players and Mary Lou Williams. So I had my brushes; I had been brushing a long time, for a while. So I brushed a solo. We were going up during intermission, up the steps to the dressing room—I won't use the exact words that he used—so he looked over at me and said, "How many drummers you know could have done that? So I said, "Hmmm, that was my first test. He wanted to see what I'd do and if I would panic when he said drum solo. So then, after that, that week was over, and we started really hanging together, drinking together, and we became good friends.

AAJ: And all throughout your tenure with Monk he basically just played and you played with him?

BR: Yes. No rehearsals, no drum parts, he said because he said, "If you had this music, all you would play is something that you know that fits. So he would never give me no music. He had music for [saxophonist Charlie] Rouse and for the bassist ...

AAJ: Was that Larry Gales at that time?

BR: At first it was Butch.

AAJ: Butch Warren.

BR: I got Larry the gig because after Butch left we went through about three or four bass players and then he just said to me one day, "Get somebody that you're comfortable with. And that's when I got Larry. What I noticed about him—after I really started studying him—was every time he felt comfortable that we knew what we were doing, then he'd introduce a new song. You know, like he'd play these certain songs until he felt us, and he felt we were comfortable playing them, and then he would come and introduce a new song to us without saying anything, he'd just start playing it. So he went back in his old repertoire when I joined the band and started playing stuff that he hadn't played in a while. I felt good about that because he felt comfortable enough with me that he would try these things.

AAJ: Was playing with Monk very different from playing with the other bands you had played with before?

BR: Very much so.

AAJ: Did you have to change your style of drumming?

BR: What I had to do was listen because he never played the same song in the same tempo. He'd always change the tempo; it would be a little faster one night and then the next night it would be a little slower and even if we played the same tune in the same day, he would always come back with a different tempo. That way you could not say, "Oh this will fit, so I'm going to play this. You couldn't go in with preconceived notions. You had to go in with an open mind.

AAJ: After Monk's band broke up you worked around with a lot of different groups for a while and then eventually came back to playing his music with Sphere. Was it your idea to revive Thelonious's music?

BR: Well what happened was when we, all three [Kenny Barron, [bassist] Buster Williams and Riley] left [bassist] Ron Carter's quartet—we were the rhythm section for Ron's group—we thought we would do trio things and then one of the club owners was opening a place on the upper west side off of Broadway (Paulsen's) and he said "Why don't you guys get a horn and come in with it. You know, we had already worked the Vanguard with a couple of different horn players; we stayed there like two weeks and worked with two different horn players.

So it just so happened [that] somebody had mentioned Monk to me or us. Oh, we got to thinking about the name to call the quartet after we had gotten Rouse and did a rehearsal, we decided that we needed a name for the group. So Kenny Barron was the one who came up with saying, "Oh man, let's be Sphere. So, he meant Sphere because we'd be playing all music—all different kinds of music—and it would be worldly music—Sphere. So I told him, well that's Thelonious's middle name and that I'd have to call Nellie to see if we could use that because nobody realized at that time that that was Monk's middle name. So I called Nellie and I told her what we were doing and that we were going to do an album and dedicate it to Thelonious—because he was sick then; he was in the hospital. So she thought it was a wonderful idea. So I said okay and I told them okay, it's cool.

So, we were in the studio recording our first album of Monk's music and he passed away while we were recording. It was really something because I didn't turn on the radio when we left Rudy van Gelder's studio and I took Rouse home and I still didn't play the radio. For whatever reason, I didn't turn the radio on in the car and I drove all the way home and I get home and I get into the driveway and my daughter's standing in the doorway and she's saying "Dad, get in here, the people are calling from the Times and the News. I said, "Calling for what? She said, "Thelonious passed away. I said, "Oh my God. And I didn't know until I got back here. Rouse and I felt, we said man, Thelonious, he felt that we were giving this tribute to him. So that became our tribute album to Thelonious.

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