The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s John Riley

by Paul Wells

In addition to the cover story on big band star Buddy Rich, the December 2012 issue of Modern Drummer magazine features a fascinating conversation between the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s John Riley and VJO drum sub Paul Wells. The article contains lots of useful real-world advice from Riley; here Wells asks him about replacing original VJO drummer/leader Mel Lewis.


Paul: Did you get to know Mel very well during your early days in New York?

John: I used to go to the Vanguard to see the band a few times a year. In the mid-’80s, I was playing with a ten-piece band from Long Island led by a pianist named Richie Iacona, and we were hired to open a concert by the Benny Goodman Sextet. I pulled up to the band shell to load in, and the sound guy told me that Benny Goodman’s drummer said I could use his set. I saw the drums with calf heads, and I realized they were Mel’s drums. Mel and the band had gone to have dinner but got back to hear the second half of our set. The sun had just gone down, and the calf heads suddenly lost all of their tension because of the humidity. Afterwards, Mel said, “Man, you sound really good, but those drums sound terrible! Why didn’t you tune them”? And I said, “They’re your drums—I didn’t want to mess with them!” He also told me to play more time on the bass drum.

After that, Mel started to send me to sub for him on various gigs. Because the studio scene had died in New York, Mel was making a good portion of his living playing as a featured guest with various big bands in Europe. He couldn’t make all the gigs, so he would recommend other drummers that he liked, and I started working in Europe a lot with the WDR band. This band played new commissioned music by writers like Jim McNeely, Bob Mintzer, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Mike Abene, Bill Dobbins, John Clayton—all really good arrangers.

I also got to hang with Mel at his place a few times. It was great to listen to records with him and have him talk about what sounds good and how things were working.

Then, in 1986 or ’87, I got a call one Monday night from John Mosca, at 9:45—the band started at 10 in those days—saying that Mel had a family emergency and they needed a drummer to play the gig that night. I played the first and second sets, and Mel eventually arrived, having resolved the emergency at home. I asked if he wanted to play the third set, but he was really complimentary and said he wanted to hear me play more. After that, he started calling me to sub for him in his own band when he had other obligations.

Paul: What happened after Mel’s death in 1990?

John: Mel wanted the band to continue, and continue to grow—he didn’t want it to be a nostalgia band. At the time of Mel’s passing, I was in John Scofield’s band. We were on the road a lot, so initially Dennis Mackrel played drums with the band. After the chair opened back up in February 1992 and I was off the road with Sco, I was invited to join the band permanently. It’s been twenty years.

Paul: What do you think got you the gig?

John: I guess, like any situation, the key people heard something they liked in my playing. I think what keeps me there is that I still find the music challenging, enjoyable, and open-ended. And I’m happy to say that the other musicians seem to look at it with the same attitude. One might think that after a long period of playing a certain repertoire, it could become boring or less fulfilling. I suppose that’s possible if people’s ears start to close. But as long as we’re trying to find new and valid approaches to the music, it seems to be a really deep well to draw from.


Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Selected Discography

With Mel Lewis

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Live at the Village Vanguard, Central Park North, Consummation, New Life /// Mel Lewis Naturally, Make Me Smile, 20 Years at the Village Vanguard, Soft Lights and Hot Music, The Definitive Thad Jones Volumes 1 and 2

With John Riley

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra Lickety Split, Can I Persuade You?, Thad Jones Legacy, The Way, Up From the Skies, Monday Night Live, Forever Lasting