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Ben Riley's Monk Legacy

Russ Musto By

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With Thelonious Monk's music, every time you play it, something else happens all the time for me, because that's how I learned how to play with him.
This interview was first published at All About Jazz on November 7, 2006.

Ben Riley is one of the most richly experienced drummers in jazz today. The Georgia-born drummer came up in Harlem during the second wave of bebop in the fifties, playing with Randy Weston and others. He was at Minton's with saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and anchored the saxophonist's two-tenor quintet with Johnny Griffin, but his true claim to fame came during his years with iconoclast pianist Thelonious Monk. Later, Riley had important tenures with pianist Alice Coltrane, the New York Jazz Quartet, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron. He revived Monk's music with the cooperative group Sphere and now leads his own unique band, Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet.

All About Jazz: Do you recall the first time you heard Monk's music?

Ben Riley:The first record I heard was "Carolina Moon. I think [altoist] Gigi Gryce might have been on that, I don't remember off hand, but I know it was a waltz and there was [drummer] Max [Roach] and Max doubled on tympani on some of it. And I took this record at home and I was playing it and my mother came in the room and said "Who is that? So I said, "Thelonious Monk. So she said "I like that. [chuckling] And that was first time she had ever come into the room while I was playing music to ask who I was listening to. So she said, "Oh boy, I like that.'Carolina Moon.'

AAJ: And you liked it right away?

BR: Yeah, it fascinated me, actually because Max was one of my real first mentors. So that's why I really got it—because Max was on it and I hadn't really heard Thelonious until that record. Then I started to listen to Thelonious all the time after that record.

AAJ: So you liked Monk right away; you weren't one of those people who thought his music was weird?

BR: Yeah, there was just something about what he was doing. And his whole presentation just knocked me out.

AAJ: When did you first hear him in person?

BR: At the old Five Spot. I went down when [saxophonist John Coltrane] Trane was working; [drummer] Shadow Wilson and [bassist] Wilbur Ware. And I would go down at nine o'clock and stay there until they closed [laughs] listening to them play.

AAJ: Did you meet Thelonious at that time?

BR: No, not really, but I knew Shadow and I knew Wilbur, so I'd just sit there out of the way in the corner, listening.

AAJ: How did you eventually come to meet Thelonious?

BR: Well, it was very strange. I worked opposite him at the other Five Spot when they moved to 8th Street, St. Marks Place, and I worked there with [pianists] Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior. And so he came in every night and looked up on the bandstand and I would be playing the drums, but he wouldn't say nothing, he'd just walk back in the kitchen. So with the third group he came in and he looked up on the bandstand and he said, "Who the hell are you, the house drummer? [laughing] And that was the first words he had said to me in about six weeks that I worked opposite him.

AAJ: Who had been playing drums with Monk on the gig?

BR: Frankie Dunlop. So when he finished the engagement, the next day Monday morning, I get a call and they said "I'm Thelonious Monk's manager and we're down here at Columbia Records and Thelonious would like you to come down and do a record with him. And I said, "Yeah, right and hung up on him [laughs] because I thought it was Saint Jenkins, who was a drummer and a friend of mine and we used to kid each other all the time—I used to call him and say, "I'm representing Duke Ellington's band and we'd like you to come and audition. [laughs] So I thought it was Saint Jenkins, so I hung up.

Next, the phone rang again and he said "No, no, I'm Harry Colombe. Listen, we're down at the studio and we're waiting for you. Get in a cab, bring your drums and we'll have someone waiting for you outside to bring your drums in the studio. So I said okay and after I started listening to his voice I said, no this is not Saint Jenkins, this is serious stuff. [laughs] So I got dressed, jumped in a cab, took my drums and I got down there and sure enough they were waiting. They took my drums up; Thelonious was sitting in the control booth, he didn't even come out. So I'm setting up my drums and after I've got them all set up and I felt that I was comfortable, he comes out of the control booth and goes to the piano—he still hasn't said nothing to me—and starts playing.

[laughing] So, I said [to myself] "Oh, boy, say, what's happening here. So we start laying and [it's] good and he didn't say nothing and when we finished doing the date, I think it was the second day, he comes up to me while I'm packing up my drums and he says [imitating Monk's voice] , "You need any money? So I said, "No, I can wait for the check. He said, "Well I don't want nobody in my band being broke. I said, "Excuse me? He said, "I don't want nobody in my band being broke. I said, "I'm in your band? He said, "Yes, you have your passport? I said, "No. He said, "Well you better go get it because we're leaving Friday for Europe.

Those were the first wonderful words I heard from Thelonious Monk. [laughing] So, I ran immediately to the telephone to call my wife on her job and say "I'm in Thelonious Monk's band and I've got to go down and get a passport because I'm leaving Friday for Europe.

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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