When you take over the drum chair associated with a bona fide legend, there’s a huge responsibility to get it right. John Riley certainly found this out when he began playing with the world-renowned Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which carried on the great legacy of drummer/leader Mel Lewis. Here, longtime MD contributor and pro drummer Paul Wells takes advantage of his own unique position as Riley’s sub on the gig, to discuss the special demands of the VJO—and of big band drumming in general.
Just after I graduated high school in 1992, I was introduced to the incredible music of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. I was captivated not only by Lewis’s swinging and earthy style but also by the writing of Jones, who always seemed to have one foot planted in jazz history and another leaping into the future.
In the years since, I’ve obsessively studied Lewis’s playing, seeking out every record and every interview I could find. Luckily for us, Mel was extremely well documented. There are hundreds of breathtaking recordings featuring his supportive and subtly burning drumming, from big bands to small groups to pop singers and soundtracks.
Mel, of course, is best known for the aforementioned collaborative big band, which he and trumpeter/writer/arranger Thad Jones (Elvin’s brother, in case you’re new!) launched in 1966. The group has been playing on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard in New York City ever since. Jones pioneered an influential style of arranging, and the band featured a freeform, small-group-like approach to solos. The inherent looseness in Lewis’s drumming was a perfect backbone for this style of playing, and many former and current members of the band speak of Mel with almost holy reverence. They describe the magnificently comfortable carpet that he would lay down, which gave the soloists the freedom to go in any direction they wanted.
In 1978 Jones suddenly abandoned the group and moved to Europe. Lewis took on sole leadership, renamed the band the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and enlisted Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Mintzer, and Jim McNeely to write new, cutting-edge arrangements to keep things moving forward. After Mel’s death in 1990, lead trombonist John Mosca and lead altoist Dick Oatts kept the band working as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (VJO). McNeely and Brookmeyer (the latter passed last year) continued to write modern and challenging music, pushing the band ever onward.
When I arrived in the New York City area to attend college, I drove into town on my very first night to see the band and meet John Riley, who had recently taken over the drum chair. I continued to check out the group regularly, and I spent three years at William Paterson University studying with John.
I never dreamed that I could possibly play in this ensemble—I was really just a fan, and I had barely any experience with big bands. But a lucky break in 2006 landed me a steady gig subbing with a fine big band at Richie Cecere’s Supper Club in Montclair, New Jersey. I continued to get experience playing with other groups with varying styles and levels of complexity—Tony Giaro’s Big Band, the Howard Williams Jazz Orchestra, the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, the Tommy Dorsey Band, and the Rob Stoneback Big Band. I was able to build my confidence to get to the point where I felt comfortable asking Riley about subbing with the VJO. I was initially told to learn a few of the more basic tunes and sit in with the band. If they liked what they heard, I might be asked back to sit in again.
I sat in three times over the course of six months, and I was eventually offered the chance to play a few gigs, subbing for John while he was on tour in Europe. Things seemed to go well, and I’ve played many more times with the band since. I’m currently sharing the position of drum sub with the fantastic players Andy Watson, Dennis Mackrel, and Tim Horner. I’m honored to be in the company of such heavyweight musicians, and it’s without a doubt the most intense musical experience of my life.
When Modern Drummer asked me to write a piece based on my experiences as a sub with the VJO, I decided to use it as an opportunity to sit down with John Riley to discuss big band drumming in general and the Vanguard gig specifically. Besides the VJO, John has played with the big bands of Bob Mintzer and Woody Herman, as well as in small groups led by John Scofield, Stan Getz, and Dizzy Gillespie. Most of you will be familiar with his fantastic books The Art of Bop Drumming and Beyond Bop Drumming and his DVD The Master Drummer. I still hope that one day John will release a book or DVD focusing exclusively on big band playing, since he’s one of the few true masters of the style. But in the meantime, I’m glad I got to sit down with him and pick his brain. John is famous for his ability to sight-read even the most complicated drum charts and make them sound like music, so I decided to start by asking him how he developed this valuable skill.
John: When I was young, I played along with a “music minus one” record by Jim Chapin called For Drummers Only. There were two versions released—one with the LP minus drums, and another that also included charts. I had the first version, so I learned it by ear, and I still remember all the tunes! The first tune was “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and it was a pretty hip arrangement. That experience helped me later on when I got to the University of North Texas.
Paul: How so?
John: I was a pretty good snare drummer and a pretty good reader of snare drum music, but I was a completely inexperienced reader of big band charts. My first teacher at North Texas, John Gates, really stressed chart reading from the very beginning. He had some very good methods to help me become a better reader, but they weren’t sinking in. After three or four lessons, he decided to try putting a chart in front of me and have me play along with a recording of it. And luckily, the record he had me play to was Chapin’s “Lady Is a Tramp,” which I already knew inside out without the chart.
So I played it really well, and he said, “Wow, you’ve been practicing this week!” I hadn’t really been practicing; I just already knew it. But in that moment I had a revelation—I knew what all of the “events” in the tune sounded like, what they felt like to play, and what they did emotionally in the music. I just didn’t recognize what they looked like written out. And suddenly I was able to make the connection between what I knew so well by ear and what it looked like on the page. The association became very strong and very fast—suddenly I could read charts, and everything became clear. That was an important moment for me.
Paul: What’s the path from reading something like the Chapin charts to reading a complicated chart with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra?
John: You have to be able to play the instrument well—play good time and get a balanced sound without having to think about it. Then you can commit a certain amount of brain resource to looking at the music and trying to read far enough ahead to see where the band could have problems.
I think the drummer has to be the best reader in the band, because we’re like the conductor of an orchestra. If you watch a conductor, when the music is smoothly percolating along, his gestures are pretty small. But at the moment before a big event, his gestures get bigger to help unify the orchestra for that bigger event. So the drummer has to look ahead and see where the music is turning a corner or where something might trip someone up, and set the table so that the weakest man is not revealed. We need to unify the band, and you can’t unify if you’re following. You have to be thinking ahead about what they’re about to do and what they need, so the band can do it effortlessly. Paul: Besides playing good time, the drummer in a big band is sometimes responsible for playing certain rhythms with the horn section. One of the first things I tried to learn was how to match the phrasing of the horns and orchestrate those figures on the drums. Could you elaborate on that?
John: If you look at the evolution of the big band style, the early bands were playing “stock arrangements”—the original version of songs that maybe weren’t actually jazz. The first jazz musicians would take these lead sheets and adjust the interpretation of the rhythms. Classical musicians have a rule about reading rhythm, which is that all notes get full value. For example, if you have a phrase that’s two quarter notes and four 8th notes, a classical musician is going to play that literally: Tah, tah, tatatata. But if a jazz musician sees the same rhythm, he’s going to play the quarter notes short and the 8th notes long until the last one: Bap. Bap. Doobeedoobap. This phrasing evolved over time, and I would call it a musical convention—it’s an agreement between every jazz musician to phrase rhythms this way. To take it a step further, dotted quarter notes and greater get full value.
As a drummer accompanying, you need to know these rules. The general rule for drummers is the short notes don’t get a crash cymbal and dotted quarters or longer get a crash, because those notes are longer and the horns are playing them to full value. There are some exceptions related to tempo, but that’s the general idea, and it’s based on the conventions that evolved with the earliest dance bands dating back to the 1920s and earlier.
Paul: In those early days of big bands, from the late ’20s to the ’40s, I’ve noticed that drummers don’t play figures with the band as much as they do now. Sometimes you’ll hear drummers playing time on the snare or hi-hat while letting most of the band’s written rhythms go by.
John: Bandleaders know that the time is more important than the figures. I imagine they found that if the drummer wasn’t a good reader and you gave him a chart with lots of information in it, he would struggle trying to play it, and the time would suffer.
Even Thad Jones, writing for a great drummer and great reader like Mel Lewis, didn’t put that much information in the charts. Like the old-timers, he would prefer the drummer focus on playing the time, and as a drummer learned the music, he would figure out which events needed support or the kind of setups we were talking about earlier.
Paul: I think the dance element had a lot to do with it too. Even if drummers were comfortable with playing figures, they felt it might disrupt the dancers.
John: Absolutely. In the ’30s, you start to hear Chick Webb and Gene Krupa play more with the ensemble. Then by the ’40s, Buddy Rich really became a master of that and showed us how effective and powerful that kind of playing could be.
Paul: What are your thoughts on the relationship between the drummer and the lead trumpeter?
John: There’s a hierarchy in a big band, and there’s a hierarchy in each section of the band—the lead player establishes the dynamics and phrasing in each section. Actually, good section players don’t follow the lead player; the lead player plays with a consistency of interpretation that the section players can anticipate, so they can always play with him. Then the hierarchy among the sections is that the lead trumpet player sends signals to his section and to the lead trombone, and then the signals go to the trombone section and then out to the lead alto.
Besides keeping good time, the drummer works with the lead trumpet player to control the dynamics and the phrasing of the music. We have to be sensitive to when the lead trumpet player may do something like hold a short note long or lay back on a phrase. The drummer needs to be like a good section player and anticipate when the lead trumpet player might do those things, so that you can do them together and things sound cohesive.
Paul: You’ve mentioned that your time at North Texas was when you discovered players like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. How did that tie into what you were doing with big bands at school?
John: At the time, my perception of big band music was that it was an older genre, and what Elvin and Tony were doing was current. I didn’t really have a sense that it was important to have a historical perspective on things. I was drawn to what was the most exciting, current stuff—like any young guy.
But I saw the Ellington band, I saw the Basie band while still in high school, and Woody Herman’s band, which was a little more current. The responsibilities of those drummers were a little more “contained” in those bands than what Tony, Elvin, and Jack [DeJohnette] were doing. That added freedom was really attractive to me—and still is. Trying to marry that sense of expressiveness with being a “responsible citizen” has been an ongoing thing.
Paul: There has always been a lot of solo space for the horn players in the VJO. How do you adjust your comping to fit with the extremely diverse styles of the various soloists in the band?
John: It’s a little different accompanying soloists in a big band from how it is in a small group. In a quartet, the primary soloists are going to get to solo on every tune. In a big band, a soloist may only get to play one solo per set, or even one solo per night! I really want that man to feel that he’s got the best chance to tell his story without any interference, and with as much support as possible.
With the individual soloists, each has a unique time feel. Some people play really in the middle of the beat, in a way saying, “This is where I want the rhythm section to play.” Others play more on top of the beat, others float around the beat, and each one opens the door for a different type of accompaniment. If somebody plays a lot of 8th notes, I’m going to comp less, because everything is covered already. If the phrases are less predictable, I may interject something and listen carefully to see if my interjection has any effect on their playing. If it does, then I know that man is happy to have input and is looking to be fed ideas or to have a dialogue or conversation. If it doesn’t, then I look for the next gap and try again. And if there’s still no real influence from my input, then I know that he just wants support, and I want to make it as swinging as possible. And I want my comping focused on making the rhythm section feel good.
Paul: If you interject something, what kind of response do you listen for? Are you listening for the soloist to pick up on rhythmic ideas you’ve played?
John: That’s one way. Or if the next phrase is really different from what they’d been doing, that would suggest that they welcome input. You would think that playing with somebody who wants conversational support would be more fun than playing with somebody who just wants you to groove, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can really sound like an idiot if you try to play conversationally with someone who doesn’t want you to play that way. The sound gets too thick and too busy, their message isn’t heard clearly, and what you’re doing just sounds self-centered.
Listening to the difference between the ways that the pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea comped, and the different drummers associated with them, opened my ears to the different ways to support a soloist. It wasn’t such a conscious thing—it’s just natural. Like, if we’re talking about drums, we’re talking about drums. Then if someone else walks in and mentions the weather, we’re going to talk about the weather. So, if somebody plays in a bebop fashion, then I’m going to enhance that approach. Then, if the next soloist plays more angular, with more tension, I’m going to play another way to enhance that approach. I don’t think about it. It’s just common sense.
Paul: You seem to have most of the band’s book memorized. Do you feel that you perform on a higher level when you’re not looking at music?
John: I started putting the music away when I noticed that when I looked at the chart, I tended to approach it in a similar way each time, and that was starting to bug me and bore me. So I put the charts away, and I started to feel like I could play with more freedom, and the music didn’t suffer.
Paul: Was it disconcerting to put the book away at first?
John: No, it was due. And the mistakes I made weren’t going to be life threatening!
Paul: Do you feel any responsibility to play certain things in the charts similarly to the way Mel played them?
John: I don’t feel a responsibility to play certain things the way Mel played them, but I would be an idiot not to! So much of the music was written for him and written around his strengths and the way he approached things. To deny that is going to diminish the music.
The kit shown in the photos is John Riley’s and is stored at the Village Vanguard for use on Monday nights, when the VJO performs. The set is a mix of Yamaha drums in silver sparkle lacquer, including a 14×20 Maple Custom Absolute bass drum, a 5-1/2×14 Maple Custom Absolute snare, an 8×12 Birch Custom Absolute rack tom, and a 14×14 Birch Custom Absolute floor tom.
The Remo heads include Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters, a Snare Side Ambassador snare bottom, Clear Ambassador tom bottoms, and Fiberskyn 3 Powerstroke 3 Diplomats on both sides of the bass drum. The hardware includes Yamaha lightweight stands and a vintage Duplex large felt bass drum beater previously owned by Mel Lewis.
VJO drum subs usually bring their own cymbals and sticks. Riley’s cymbals are Zildjians, including 14″ K Constantinople hi-hats, a 20″ K Constantinople prototype, a 22″ K Constantinople Renaissance ride with one rivet, and a 20″ A Swish prototype with six rivets. His sticks and brushes are Zildjians, including his signature model stick and Double Stick Mallet. Paul Wells’ cymbals are Istanbul Agops, including 14″ Mel Lewis hi-hats, a 20″ Mel Lewis ride or a 20″ 30th Anniversary ride, a 22″ Special Edition Jazz ride with two rivets or a 22″ 30th Anniversary ride with two rivets, and a 22″ prototype Swish with six rivets. He plays Pro-Mark William Kennedy sticks, TB4 brushes, and MT3 mallets.
While interviewing Riley about playing with the VJO, Wells brought up the topic of gear, specifically what Riley looks for in a ride cymbal for big band gigs. Here’s what John had to say.
John: I like something lower pitched and not too staccato. I’ve found that with cymbals, as you move farther away from them, they tend to sound cleaner and higher pitched than if you’re right on top of them. People are often surprised when they play one of my cymbals, that they sound “dirtier” right on top of them than they do from the audience. That’s because a lot of that dirtiness gets canceled out by the overtones of the other instruments. So I’m trying to think about how it sounds from the audience’s perspective, and trying to find a compromise between what’s comfortable for me to play and what gets the best sound in the house.
Paul: Mel had somewhat preplanned ideas about which cymbals to use behind each soloist. For example, tenor sax always got the Chinese cymbal, baritone sax got the main ride, and piano got the left-side ride. I’ve noticed that you’re not as specific about your cymbal choices.
John: I’m not quite as deliberate as that, but I am sensitive to the timbre of the cymbal and how it relates to the soloist. Sometimes a cymbal’s pitch can fall too much in the middle of a soloist’s range, and that can inhibit their projection.
Paul: How about the sound of the drums? You have your own drums at the Vanguard, and they’re similar sizes to Mel’s, but your sound is pretty different.
John: The pitch of the toms goes up and down depending on what I’m hearing. Right now, they’re kind of in the middle. But it can work either way—when you listen to recordings of Mel in the ’50s, his drums were sometimes tuned pretty high.
I’m still trying to figure out where I want the snare drum to be. I’m experimenting with the pitch and how staccato or legato I want the sound to be. It always sounds better to me from the front of the house than from on top of it.
Paul: I’ve struggled a bit, where I’ve found it sounds better tuned lower when I play with the full ensemble, but I want it tuned tighter when comping behind a soloist.
John: Yeah, we’re still working on that!