This past November 18, the American jazz-drumming great Ben Riley passed away at the age of eighty-four. A brief list of Riley’s credits includes Alice Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Ahmad Jamal, Kenny Barron, the New York Jazz Quartet, and—most notably—the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Riley appeared on the venerated Monk recordings It’s Monk’s Time, Monk, Underground, and Straight, No Chaser, as well as the reissued 1964 recordings Live at the It Club and Live at the Jazz Workshop.
Riley was born in Georgia and moved to New York City with his family when he was four. After graduating high school, he served in the army, then moved back to New York in 1954. The drummer began playing professionally around the city in 1956 and joined Monk in 1964. His tenure with the idiosyncratic pianist and composer would last until 1968, when Riley took a four-year break from New York and music. He eventually returned to the kit in the ’70s, playing with the New York Jazz Quartet, Alice Coltrane, the Ron Carter Quartet, and others. As a leader Riley released the albums Weaver of Dreams, Memories of T, and Grown Folks Music.
Frank Capp, the longtime Los Angeles studio and jazz drummer who appeared with Frank Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, and André Previn, among others, passed away this past September 12 at the age of eighty-six. Although he preferred working with jazz artists, Capp’s prolific studio career saw him back pop acts such as Sonny and Cher and play supporting percussion behind Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine with the Beach Boys. Capp also did a significant amount of soundtrack work, particularly for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio, and his performances were featured on shows such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons. In the ’60s, Capp started a long and successful contracting job pairing composers with musicians for various studio work, which he maintained alongside his notable drumming career.
The famed hard-bop and soul drummer Grady Tate passed away last October 8 at the age of eighty-five. As a sideman, Tate played on countless records with such jazz artists as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wes Montgomery, among many others. The drummer also had success as a pop studio musician with artists including Paul Simon and Bette Midler. As a composer, Tate produced a myriad of jingles and television and film scores. He was also a talented singer; in addition to his own vocal recordings, he contributed his voice to the famed Schoolhouse Rock! animated education series and to albums by Grover Washington and others. As an educator, Tate taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., as a lecturer of jazz studies starting in the late 1980s.
Chuck Blackwell, the legendary Tulsa, Oklahoma, drummer whose credits include Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the Everly Brothers, Taj Mahal, and Freddie King, passed away last October 23 at seventy-seven years old. Blackwell was among a generation of Oklahoma drummers that helped define the “Tulsa feel,” which comprised unique shuffles, slow and medium tempos, and signature low-pitched snare tones. The Tulsa sound would eventually influence musicians such as Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
Blackwell moved from Tulsa to Los Angeles after a tour with Jerry Lee Lewis and quickly established a name for himself around town. In addition to gigs with acts like the Everlys, Blackwell was a member of the Shindogs, the house band for the mid-’60s ABC television show Shindig! After the show’s two-year run, Blackwell landed gigs with Mahal and Cocker, among others. In the late 1970s Blackwell moved back to Tulsa to open a stained-glass business, while playing sparse gigs for close to the next forty years. In 2014 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.