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 itbecause 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 timeI 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 pianohe still hasn't said nothing to meand 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 therebig 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 roomI won't use the exact words that he usedso 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.