Master jazz drummer John Riley performs and teaches throughout the world. His dozens of performance and recording credits include Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, John Scofield, Milt Jackson and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
On Thursday, March 15, Riley will join three Louisiana musicians — saxophonist Tony Dagradi, pianist Mike Esneault and bassist Roland Guerin — at Baton Rouge’s new jazz venue Chorum Hall. Dagradi is the only musician whose work Riley is familiar with.
“It’s going to be a blind date,” Riley said. “But I know they’re seasoned players. We’re going to have ball.”
Based in New York City, Riley teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and Kutztown University. A New Jersey native, he studied music at the University of North Texas. Although Riley’s family moved to Baton Rouge during his junior year at UNT, he never lived here. He’s been to the city often, however, to visit his sister, nieces and late mother.
Moving to Texas from Scotch Plains Township, New Jersey, immediately after high school to attend UNT was a culture shock for Riley.
“The weather and the food and the accent,” he said. “And being surrounded by a bunch of musicians who were much better than I was. But it worked out in my favor. I sought out the experienced players and learned from them.”
The woodshedding Riley did in Denton, Texas, gave him the confidence to move to New York after graduation. In January 1978, he landed a gig with Woody Herman, the clarinetist, singer and big band leader who’d been a swing era star.
“Woody’s band worked constantly,” Riley said. “Woody had income tax problems, so he had to work. That created a great circumstance for the musicians he hired.”
Riley worked with Herman for eight months and periodically returned to the band until Herman’s death at 74 in 1987.
“Woody wasn’t a disciplinarian,” Riley said. “He didn’t give much advice. If he didn’t think you had the potential to do the job, he got rid of you fast. If he thought you had potential, he gave a chance to figure it out.”
As for Herman, he gave the audience everything he had.
“Woody used to say, ‘The audience doesn’t know what we’ve gone through to get here tonight. The audience doesn’t know that we’ve been on the bus for 12 hours and haven’t had a shower and we ate at McDonald’s. We’ve got to give them 100 percent.’
“Woody always gave 100 percent, even though he was 65, 66 years old at that time,” Riley said. “Most of the band was under 30. His energy and commitment inspired and unified all of us.”
In addition to the many jazz giants Riley has worked with, his 26-year weekly gig with the Vanguard Orchestra at the Village Vanguard is another star on his résumé. After subbing in the 1980s for Mel Lewis, the drummer who co-founded the orchestra in 1966, Riley became the group’s permanent drummer in 1992.
The Village Vanguard opened in 1935. It’s a legendary spot where many classic jazz albums were recorded.
“This space that (owner) Max Gordon found was an empty basement,” Riley said. “The rent was cheap. Max thought he’d give it a go there. The place turned out to have magical acoustics. I love playing at the Village Vanguard. I love hearing other people play there. It’s the most comfortable and intimate and best-sounding room in New York or maybe the world.”
JOHN RILEY WITH MIKE ESNEAULT, ROLAND GUERIN AND TONY DAGRADI
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15
WHERE: Chorum Hall, 1024 Executive Park Ave., Baton Rouge