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American Routes Shortcuts: Herlin Riley

Herlin Riley
American Routes

Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. This week, we highlight Jazz Fest performers from yesterday and today. Host Nick Spitzer spoke with New Orleans jazz drummer Herlin Riley at his drum kit about playing with pianist Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Marsalis, and growing up in a musical family in the Lower Ninth Ward.

HR: My uncles had the Lastie Brothers Combo, and they would rehearse at my grandmother’s house - I was a baby, they would actually wheel my crib into the room where they were rehearsing -

NS: Yeah, we have a crib in here for you just in case you get a little tired

HR: I could use a crib, ha, I could use a crib, and a pillow - make sure you have a pillow and a nice, warm blanket.

NS: No problem.

HR:  But anyway, they would roll my crib into the room and the music would be my pacifier - it would kinda keep me quiet.

NS: The visitors to your house included Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Dr. John -

HR: Well, they had an association with my uncles - My uncle David was playing on Dr. John’s Gumbo Ya-Ya. Professor Longhair was close with my uncle Jesse Hill - Jesse Hill of Ooh-Poo-Pah-Do fame. Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo is my grandmother’s brother. He and ‘Fess - they were tight. And ‘Fess, I remember my grandmother had a piano where ‘Fess would be showing my uncle some new tune or something, and he’d actually kick the piano with his right foot, right where the bunion is. And you could see the indentations in the soundboard at the bottom -

NS: The Professor Longhair Footprint

HR: His footprint, yeah

NS: I hope the music was worth it and your grandma didn’t get too upset,

HR: Oh yeah, she loved it, she loved it.

HR: I could always play the drums because I could play the drums when I was three or four years old - I don’t remember when I could not play the drums - I learned to play in church - you know, that’s when I got to actually play. It was the Guiding Star Spiritual Church, and it was in the Lower Ninth Ward, and my grandfather was very active in the church and so he played the drums - no high hat, cymbals and the bass drum. And he’d play something that would be like this:


HR: I mean he would stay there! That’s where he wanted me to stay, all the time, if I played. And my grandfather kept a strong eye on me - he would always, you know, I’d be playing and every now and then I’d slip into a James Brown beat or something, and he’d say, “oh no, that would never work here. Play the groove, play it straight, play it straight.”

NS: What was going on in the church, I mean it’s a spiritual church, did people catch the spirit?

HR: Yes, people caught the spirit in church

NS: In a big way with percussion I would think, that’s usually pretty powerful.

HR: Yes, yes, yes. It was - I haven’t experienced that since I was a child, to see people really catch the holy spirit and to see people actually shout and pass out where you put smelling salts in front of their noses, you know they would come out and a couple of them say it felt like they were in a boxing match or something they felt so exhausted and so tired and so, when they come out of it. And now I understand it, you know, now I understand it. A lot of it has to do with the rhythm. And I’ve learned that also, these type of phenomenon happen also in Africa, you know, where people are playing these repetitions and these rhythms all the time, and people kind of get the spirit. And that was part of what was happening in the church, you know, they’d play these songs and fall into this groove and this sanctified beat. And so it taught me about the power of rhythm, and the power of repetition, and the power of playing a groove- a strong, strong groove. It taught me about the power and how it can move people to another sphere.