John Riley: Inspiring Innovation

Ben Scholz BY

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"We're all drawn to the big moments in music; as one listens to something longer and longer, the significance of what a musician is doing most of the time - between the highlights - starts to sink in. That's where one learns about musical balance."
—John Riley
Foremost an innovator, John Riley has always been a "drummer's drummer" in the world of straight-ahead jazz. With nearly a hundred recordings, a dozen videos, and five books under his belt, Riley is a veritable font of knowledge in the bebop realm. In this article, we take a look back at some of his musical endeavors including recording with Miles Davis, working with Quincy Jones, and playing drums with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. We'll also examine the changing landscape of music and discuss how younger drummers can find inspiration.

All About Jazz: I've been a fan of yours since I first saw the Live 3 Ways video with John Scofield and I've seen you perform with Bob Mintzer, the Vanguard Band, and at masterclasses nearly a dozen times in both in New York and Chicago. I've used your books extensively throughout my career, and some of the first articles I read in Modern Drummer were yours. In one of these articles, you mentioned the importance of seeking out musical innovators in the development of your career. Will you elaborate on this?

John Riley: We all want to be inspired—and the people that are playing things that seem new or significant to me are the ones that inspire me the most. So, that's what I mean in that case. This is a fluid, evolving endeavor, and I'm always looking at new trends and how they relate to what happened in the past. Just trying to stay inspired and growing through that process.

AAJ: In a lesson a while back, you touched on the concept of wearing different hats. I think this was in the context of my side work as a producer and manager for record labels. In addition to performing as a leader and a sideman you are also a prolific writer and an educator. What moved you to pursue these other vocations and are there other hats you wear that you'd like to share with us?

JR: Well, I started teaching at North Texas my junior year when the school had an overflow of drum students. Currently I'm teaching at Manhattan School of Music and SUNY Purchase in New York and I find the process of teaching to be inspiring in many of the same ways that performing inspires me. I was motivated to publish my books by a drummer named Dan Thress. Dan had been taking lessons from me over the course of a couple of years, and at one point Dan said to me, "I really like these lessons, I don't think there's anything like it on the market, why don't you think about putting a book together?" So he encouraged me to do it and had access to a publisher. That's how the books began.

AAJ: You're well known in the straight-ahead bebop world of drumming. Are there any recordings of you performing avant-garde or fusion styles?

JR: I guess the two most recent recordings I did with trombonist Luis Bonilla are kind of aggressive, people were surprised to hear my playing on them. They're not really fusion or avant-garde, but they're another side of what I do that's different from what people are familiar with. There's a record I made years ago with pianist Kenny Werner called Uncovered Heart that has some back-beat-y stuff, and a couple of the Mintzer records could be considered "fusion." There was a point in 1980 or 81 where Frank Zappa called and asked me to audition for him as well. So, I have an interest in all kinds of music and have cultivated some skills in areas besides jazz. However, these dimensions haven't been exposed as much because the opportunities I've had really haven't called for them.

AAJ: Some people might not know this, but you had a chance to play with Miles Davis. I wanted to ask you what that was like and specifically, what he was looking for in a drummer at that time.

JR: The circumstance of that was kind of unusual. We performed together at Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland, and Quincy Jones had been the festival's music director for a number of years. He had been begging Miles to do a retrospective, looking at the music of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain as well as the larger ensemble music he did in the late 40's and again in the late 50's.

So, finally Quincy convinced Miles to do this, and I think it was in 1990 or 91. This being in Switzerland, they hired a Swiss pianist named George Gruntz to contract the musicians. I was playing with George at the time, so he asked me to do this event with Miles. Then, Quincy got the idea that it might be difficult to make this new product better than the original one, so he said "How can we make it better than the original one? Well we'll double the size of the band, we'll make it twice as big, that'll make it twice as good."

Which, was kind of a crazy idea. Gil Evans wrote most of the music we were going to perform, and he had had a band in New York before he passed away. That band was brought in to supplement the musicians that were hired in Switzerland, and Kenwood Dennard was the drummer.

Now, we get to Montreux and we had 3-4 days of rehearsal. Right off the bat, I see Grady Tate is there. It turns out that Quincy didn't know me, didn't know Kenwood and brought Grady in to play drums. Grady was really funny—I had worked with Grady—he was also working as a singer. He had hired me to do a bunch of gigs with him in the late 70's early 80's and I'd known him for a long time. He said the funniest thing, he said, "man I'm 59 years old... I'll sell my drums, retire and just be a singer, but I get a call to play with Miles..." and he was really scared that Miles wasn't going to like him. He said, "Man, you should be playing this gig." In fact, he's playing my drums and my cymbals on the thing. So Kenwood and I play percussion, and Grady plays drums.

That's the long and the short of the story. It was a fantastic experience. We rehearsed for a couple of days, but Miles didn't show up for the rehearsals. We were rehearsing in the hotel in Switzerland. We knew he was in the hotel, but he never came to the rehearsals until the conclusion of the rehearsal the night before the concert.

At about 10 o'clock we were wrapping up the rehearsal, and Miles kind of floats into the room in this amazing leather suit and giant sunglasses. There's about 40 musicians there, and film crews, and fans and stuff, and Miles walks straight through the crowd of people, right past Quincy Jones, and walks straight up to Grady Tate, and gives him a big bear hug and says, "Man, Klook (Kenny Clarke) left me and he left you here for me, you swingin' mother fucker" and Grady was really nervous about this whole thing. This giant smile came across his face when Miles gave him this hug. It was almost like Miles had telepathy that the most important guy in the room to him, was uptight, and said to himself, "I'm gonna put him at ease." I was standing next to Grady when this happened and it was really a magical moment.

We rehearsed some more since Miles was there. We rehearsed the next day, and he was in really good spirits, was very playful, and really seemed to be enjoying himself. I think he passed away about 3 or 4 months later. So he must have had some inkling that if he was ever going to do this retrospective, it had to be now.

AAJ: That's a great story.

JR: My role as a musician was kind of minor, but my gratitude for being part of the whole thing is major.

AAJ: I had no idea, I did not know that Grady was involved with that concert.

JR: I think the CD lists Grady and I as the drummers and Kenwood on percussion, but Grady played drums on the whole thing. And Grady actually said, "You should be playing this." But I said "Quincy wants you and that's the way it should be..."

AAJ: All of your books contain chapters where you stress the importance of listening to the music and studying the master drummers. People listen to music differently now than they did even 10 years ago. In your opinion, how has the popularity of streaming radio and Mp3s changed the way young drummers internalize music?

JR: Well, people are bombarded with every possible kind of music, with the entire history of music available to them every second of every day. That's different from 10 years ago or 40 years ago when I would go to a record store and pick up a record. For example, maybe that particular album was a record. I remember this Chick Corea record called The Leprechaun and discovered this drummer named Steve Gadd. I went to that record store every day for the next 8 or 9 months looking for the next Chick Corea record with Steve Gadd on it. I listened to that record every day until the next one, which I think was called My Spanish Heart, came out.

I had the same experience with many records. Records with Jack DeJohnette on ECM, that I listened to every day for months until the next one came out...I listened to Four and More every day for more than months. So I think that there's a kind of absorption that happens with repeated listening and the value that I would put on a recording when I received it. Because I knew that if I loved it, it was going to be a long time before I would find something else like it.

Nowadays that scenario has completely changed. New records are coming out every day, AND even though the entire history of music is available, it seems like people don't know the recordings. Well, let me put it this way. It's rare to find someone who's lived with the recording as long as we used to in the old days.

Music seems to gloss over people just because they don't have to commit to listening to one record. They have opportunities to hear so many. It's almost like having a box of chocolates in front of you. You pick one up and you take a bite out of it and you say "oh yeah, I like that," but you put half of it back in and you pick up another flavor and you say "oh yeah, that's nice too" and you pick up another one and there's a cherry in that and you take a bite out of it, and another one has a nut in it, and then by the fifth one you don't taste anything any more.

When you have that one recording called Four and More or that one recording called Speak No Evil, and you listen to that record every day for months and you know every part that every musician on the recording plays and can sing them all, there's a kind of a depth that appears. You can't achieve this when you listen to something once, or you listen to ONE song from Speak No Evil. I think that it's unfortunate that glossing over stuff seems to be the trend. In my opinion, everything is out there tempting you to listen to it. The people that I admire all seem to have spent a lot of time listening to particular recordings, and really absorbing the material.

AAJ: Do you feel with the way that vinyl is coming back into vogue, that on some level that aspect of digesting an album might be coming back?

JR: Well it's possible but I'm not hopeful. Having the stuff on your iPhone is so much easier, it's unfortunate. Well, it's fortunate that everything's available because I'm hearing things I've never heard before. But it's unfortunate that musicians at an earlier developmental stage are more inclined to get at the surface of many things as opposed to the depth of a few things.

AAJ: I have to say I agree with everything you just said, especially concerning the disposability of music nowadays. From a quantitative point of view, the money that would have come in from album sales or even song downloads has kind of dissipated. What would have been one dollar or ten dollars, is now a penny or ten pennies for a song that's been streamed, and it doesn't seem like people are listening to things more than 2 or 3 times before they move on to something else.

JR: Yeah, that seems to be the way it is, yet that's not the way the people who made those early records listened to music. I remember Jimmy Heath telling me that when he was a kid he went to the candy store to get something, and there was a Jay McShann record playing on the jukebox and he heard an eight measure Charlie Parker solo—I think it was the first time he heard Charlie Parker—and it blew his mind. And his mother had given him a dollar to get some ice cream or something, and he took the dollar to the counter and got twenty nickels and listened to that song twenty times. By the end of it, he had that solo memorized. That's an even older approach than what I had. I think there's something missing when you don't live with the music for a long time.

AAJ: I guess I could say, I concur. I don't really have an answer—I guess that's just the way things are now.

JR: That's the way things have evolved. There are a lot of virtuoso players today, so I guess this new way of looking at things isn't affecting their craftsmanship, but it may be affecting the way they're using their craft.

AAJ: Do you think people are just spending a lot of time in practice rooms and not sitting down and focusing and listening to music?

JR: I think people are spending a lot of time in practice rooms, and becoming fantastic athletes on the instrument, and that dimension can influence how one approaches the music. To follow up on what we discussed earlier: when one listens to tons of music rather than live with a smaller collection of music what seems to stick with you are the "highlights" or busiest moments for all those recordings. Of course we're all drawn to the big moments in the music; I've found that as one listens to something longer and longer, the significance of what a musician is doing most of the time—between those highlights—starts to sink in and that's where one learns about musical balance, to be patient and musically supportive.

AAJ: Before we finish, I had one more kind of "fun" question to wrap this up. Living in New York, one of the things that surprised me was the fact that most drummers seem to use the same 4 piece set up that you use. Visiting drummers seem to pare down their kits as soon as they reach the city limits. Is it really too much to ask for one extra tom?

JR: Well, when I first moved to New York I would carry my drum set on the subway. So I had to carry everything and get it up and down the stairs in one trip, otherwise I would carry one half the kit down and when I would get back up the stairs to get the other half, it would be gone. A lot of people get accustomed to carrying small kits because they're schlepping the stuff around. Now things are changed so many of the clubs have their own drum sets. They got tired of having drummers carrying stuff in and out and bumping into tables and customers, so that was the choice of the clubs or the budgets of the clubs that limited them to those 4 piece kits. I'm fortunate to play at the Village Vanguard which is one of the last clubs in New York where people play their own instruments. When Tony Williams played there he played a 24 inch bass drum with 2 toms on top, and 3 floor toms, and you got to hear HIM play HIS sound. At the Blue Note, everybody plays the house kit. So a lot of it is a measure of practicality: the clubs are small, transporting the stuff is difficult, and carrying it in a taxi is a drag—an extra piece?—well an extra tom is not too much to ask if you want to CARRY it. Or if you have a cartage company willing to deliver it. But a lot of the venues have 4 piece kits, so there's no option there.

AAJ: I didn't know that the Vanguard didn't have a back line, well I guess I've only ever seen you play there.

JR: Well my drums are there because I'm there every week [with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra}. But they're only played on Mondays. When Al Foster comes in or Lewis Nash comes in etc., they always play their own drums. Hardly anyone is carrying their own drums on the road anymore so we're all dealing with "drums du jour." It's always interesting to hear players I know well playing on a strange kit. Some people consistently get their own sound, others seem to savor finding new sounds in the 'du jour" kits. One reason everyone loves playing, and listening to music at the Village Vanguard is you really get to hear that drummer's sound in an intimate setting with great acoustics. I look forward to playing there every week.

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