Chuck Riggs

Eddie Cantor used to say, “Sometimes it takes ten years to become a star overnight.” Chuck Riggs, 34, knows the feeling. He had been working with tenor sax player Scott Hamilton for a full ten years before the release of the album, Close Up: The Scott Hamilton Quintet on Concord Records in 1982. “That’s the record that really put the band on the map,” Riggs recalls. “That record basically got us Japan.”

The Scott Hamilton Quintet (Hamilton, Riggs, guitarist Chris Flory, bassist Phil Flanigan, and pianist John Bunch) wowed ’em on its first Japanese tour in 1983, playing its contemporary swing everywhere from tiny, packed jazz clubs, to vast—but also packed—concert halls. “The Japanese really know how to treat an artist. You know, doing one-nighters is very hard for a drummer. Not only do you have to keep your energy up night after night as you tour, but every place you go, you have to set up your drums and take them down again. In Japan, they set up and took down the drums for me, night after night. All I had to do was play.”

Close-Up proved a solid hit in the U.S. and abroad, garnering great reviews, strong sales for Concord, and air play on jazz stations, which, in turn, helped to get the band new bookings. From tapes of the band playing in Japan, Concord has released two follow-up “live” albums, The Scott Hamilton Quintet In Concert and The Second Set, which have been equally well received. As Riggs discusses his career, he is getting ready to leave for another (1985) tour of Japan with the band. “It’s only really been good for the band for the past two years,” he reflects. “It was hit or miss before then. Oh, there were albums coming out. We’d work places like Eddie Condon’s and fans would ask why we weren’t working more. Now we’re hoping that somebody will realize that the band is here to stay. There’s no other group of people I’d rather play with for the rest of my life.”

Riggs has drummed for such greats as Bob Wilber, Bob Haggart, and the “King of Swing” himself, Benny Goodman. Riggs also did the drumming for the film The Cotton Club, and says he looks forward to doing more film work. But his first love, he stresses, is playing in the Scott Hamilton Quintet.

Riggs sees a great value in musicians staying together in an ongoing, organized group. They get to know each other’s strong points; they can bring out the best in each other. Of the current Scott Hamilton Quintet, four members (Hamilton, Riggs, Flanigan, and Flory) have been playing together, off and on, since at least 1976. That kind of continuity is extremely rare in the jazz world these days, and Riggs believes it’s an important factor in the group’s success.

Riggs was nine and a half or ten, he recalls, when a neighbor took him to see Gene Krupa. “I saw him flashing around, playing unbelievably, and 1 said, ‘I want to play like that guy.’ The very next day, I bought a big pair of sticks and put them in my back pocket. I took maybe a week of drumming lessons. I learned from records, radio, TV, and going to see everybody.”

Riggs loved jazz, but found that he was the only jazz musician in his native Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He wound up playing a lot of rock, funk, and soul. He took a factory day job and gigged at night when he could. He’d go into Woonsocket to jam with guitarist Duke Robillard and players that eventually formed the band Roomful of Blues.

“Duke turned me on to blues and R&B. I learned real 4/4 blues,” he notes. “I’d play at a club in a country-rock band and then get up at eight to work my day job. But I wanted to play jazz or R&B; I didn’t want rock. Finally, I locked myself in a room, and listened to Basie, Ellington, and Krupa. I also tried to learn that Jo Jones thing. I stayed in the room, playing along with records, trying to get a jazz feel.”

He was 20 or 21, he says, when he first heard Scott Hamilton, who was then only 16 or 17, but was already playing an impressive swing tenor, in the tradition of Ben Webster and Illinois Jacquet. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s playing some horn.’ He had a quartet then, the Hamilton-Bates Blue Flames. I kept calling Scott, saying I wanted to audition for the band. A year or so went by. Finally, we sat in a taproom in Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived, and we both had that natural feeling that we wanted to play together. And we did. We were making that ESP kind of music, where everything he knew, I knew. I kept telling Scott: ‘You play so good, you should definitely go to New York.’ But he’d say, ‘I’m not ready for New York . . . . ‘”

But jobs were hard to come by for this band playing its own kind of swing and blues. The older members of the band left. In 1976, the Scott Hamilton Quartet, as the band was then being billed, consisted of Hamilton, Riggs, Flory, and Flanigan. The latter two, then 20 and 23 years old, respectively, had come to Providence from upstate New York, sharing an interest in the swing tradition.

Riggs took an offer to tour for a while with a more commercial big band in order to make some money. “I told Scott, ‘No hard feelings; you’re definitely my favorite.’ But I couldn’t pay my rent in Providence.” One final gig, though, foretold the success Hamilton’s group was eventually to enjoy. They were booked to play at Sandy’s in Beverly, Massachusetts, backing up Roy Eldridge. The legendary trumpeter had been a key element in Gene Krupa’s big band and had also been Krupa’s relief drummer, drumming sometimes when Krupa chose to conduct. “Roy taught me a lot in just one week,” Riggs says. “And he kept telling Scott, ‘You have to come to New York.'”

When is a musician ready to try New York? There’s no way of knowing for sure, Riggs says, adding that, if there’s any advice he’d give a musician seriously interested in making it in the business, it is simply: “Anybody who really wants to play should go to New York.”

Riggs toured with the big band until he had saved up enough cash, he recalls, to get him to the City. “I came to New York with $500 in my pocket in late ’76. Scott and Chris were already there; Phil followed me.” And the Scott Hamilton Quartet was soon finding dates in New York.

“When we weren’t working, I went to every club that would let me sit in. I played with Earle Warren, Tiny Grimes, Roy Eldridge, etc. Roy would say, ‘Come over here, baby,’ and we’d talk until four in the morning. He taught me a lot, and he’s still my favorite trumpet player,” Riggs says.

With Eldridge as a strong backer, the band nailed down a steady Sunday night gig at Eddie Condon’s that lasted more than two years (and they have continued to work periodically at Condon’s since then). Equally as important, top players such as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Joe Turner, and Dave McKenna appeared as guests with them. Being in New York (where they could meet and work with top people regularly) made things happen, and for Hamilton, fame within jazz circles came almost instantly.

The band was getting dates out of town. They traveled to Europe. They played at Waterloo Village as part of the Kool Jazz Festival. And Hamilton was sought after for recording dates.

But far more attention was focused initially on Hamilton as an individual than on the band as a whole. To record and concert producers, it no doubt seemed obvious that, if Hamilton was great with his own band, he would be even greater on concert and recording dates if he were thrown together with bigger names in jazz. But in reality, things didn’t always work out that way. Musicians can develop an interplay working night after night in New York or on the road that can’t always be equaled by a band that basically exists only for a recording session.

Hamilton made albums both with thrown-together groups and with his own band. And some of the most successful—in the opinions of both the musicians and of reviewers—resulted from Hamilton recording with his own band: Riggs, Flory, and Flanigan, with pianist Norman Simmons and later John Bunch, added when the quartet expanded to a quintet. They also recorded with guest cornetist Warren Vache, Jr., who had often played with the band in New York or on tour, and who would sometimes borrow members of the band for his own engagements.

But there were dry spells when the band simply wasn’t getting much work. Riggs recalls often going across the street to Flory’s apartment to commiserate. The band was getting top write-ups from reviewers. They could turn on the radio and hear cuts from their latest Concord albums. “So how come we’re not work- ing?” Riggs would ask. The big breakthrough for the band as a band, according to Riggs, came with the release in 1982 of the album Close-Up.

Riggs used his free time to improve his playing, and to develop his own sound. “I took little pieces from Connie Kay, Jake Hanna, Ed Locke, Jo Jones, Davy Tough, Big Sid, and Krupa, of course.” Jo Jones became his favorite drummer, and every Wednesday night that he was free, he would head for the West End Cafe to hear Jones play and to talk with him about drumming.

As for his equipment, Riggs settled upon a set of folding drums for touring use, and had a set custom-made for New York use. “Folding drums are easier to carry,” he explains. “Jake Hanna and Bobby Rosengarden told me about them; I called up Slingerland and got a set. Everything opens up. The ride tom goes in the floor tom and both go into the bass drum. It opens up like a hatbox.”

His New York drumset is “a small bop set, made by the Modern Drum Shop in New York. It’s made the way I had wanted for a long time: custom-made, done by hand. There’s an 18″ bass drum, a 12” tom-tom, and a 14 x 14 floor tom-tom. I use calf heads on the top and plastic on the bottom. I was told by Jo Jones: ‘If you can’t feel the drums in your stomach, you’re tuning the drums wrong.’ You have to really feel the vibrations. Calf heads make the sound resonant. I use a small drumset, but I tune the drums to get a low, big sound. I like hearing the overtones. I used to take days, experimenting with tuning each side differently. And I’ll tighten or loosen up during the night on a job. I don’t tune to a note; I tune it until I like the sound and feel.

“I have two snare drums: a 1950 solid maple 5 1/2” deep snare drum and a ’47 that I play with now. If you’re going to play a wooden snare drum, you should use a solid maple, and they’re not really making them anymore. The wood was so much better back in the late ’40s.

“I have old K. Zildjian cymbals: 19″, 18″, 13” hi-hats, and a China Boy. That was my influence from Davy Tough; he’d play that cymbal better than anybody on the face of the earth. He’d play that cymbal with Woody Herman and the whole band would lift.

“I wanted to find my own cymbal sound—somewhere between that of Big Sid, Jo Jones, and Philly Joe . . . ” Mostly, Riggs kept watching the greats. “There are so few teachers who can teach swing drumming nowadays,” Riggs says, “that the best way to learn is to see the cats who are still playing that way.” And to listen to records. “My favorite records are still Basie, Jo Jones, Illinois Jacquet— both big band and small group stuff. The new Modern Jazz Quartet with Connie Kay is really nice. I like some of the stuff Jake Hanna is on. I listen to the airchecks of Woody Herman with Davy Tough. And The Essential Jo Jones is an album I listen to all the time,” he adds. Riggs notes, too, that he’s always liked to practice about an hour a day, mentioning that one practice aid he’s found valuable is Stone’s Stick Control book.

How did Riggs keep going through the dry spells? “If you’re going to make it as a drummer, you have to be able to play every avenue within the style you play,” Riggs declares. Riggs played good swing drums—which not many younger drummers do—and he studied the whole of the territory. He found he could blend well with older musicians. Riggs played in concert with The World’s Greatest Jazzband of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart. Haggart later hired him for a band he put together for an engagement at the Rainbow Room. Bob Wilber hired him for the Smithsonian Jazz Ensemble, which recreates jazz classics from the days of Jelly Roll Morton to Theolonious Monk. “The jazz repertory thing really saved me. I could fit into Dixieland. I could play woodblocks or temple blocks, choke cymbals play like Baby Dodds—all those things. Financially, it helped me out.” Wilber also used Riggs often on his “Bechet Legacy” concert dates and on several albums.

In 1981, Wilber hired Riggs, Flory and Flanigan as the nucleus of a group that did a month-long tribute to the Benny Goodman Sextet at Michael’s Pub in New York. And that gig had unforeseen consequences. One night Goodman himself showed up, borrowed Wilber’s clarinet, and sat in with the others. By now, the band was really tight and familiar with the Goodman repertoire. Goodman, Riggs recalls, decided he wanted the band. Riggs soon found himself playing concert dates all over the country with Goodman, often with Flory and Flanigan, and occasionally with Hamilton and Vache as well.

“He is without a doubt the greatest,” says Riggs of Goodman. “Nobody has such natural time. He’s a nonstop swinger from the moment he puts his clarinet in his mouth. We’d rehearse at the Wellington Hotel in a big room with a Steinway. I learned a lot from that guy about swinging; he’s like one of the strongest cats around.” Riggs says Goodman expects to return to concert work shortly, and that he hopes that he, Flory, Flanigan, and Hamilton will be able to work with Goodman once again.

For The Cotton Club, Bob Wilber wanted to recreate the sound of Duke Ellington’s 1928 band. Wilber speaks highly of Riggs’ contribution. Riggs, Wilber says, made an actual study of Sonny Greer’s drumming with Ellington to prepare for the film. Says Riggs, “I know a lot about Sonny Greer and that’s my favorite period of Duke. You know, I taught myself basically how to play by ear—so as soon as I hear a tape or record, it’s imbedded. But for The Cotton Club, I listened steadily for four or five days. I can read music, but you really have to know what the stuff is, in order to prevent the jazz from sounding like you’re just reading.”

But Riggs makes it clear that, given a choice, he would be happy to be working steadily with the Scott Hamilton Quintet. “The members of the band are compatible, and we’re making our own music, rather than trying to recreate anyone else’s music. It’s not at all confining playing with Scott.” As for the band’s newfound commercial success in the wake of the last three albums, Riggs says, “There were some tough times over the years, so I’m especially glad to see the band breaking through now.”