Playing this music is about knowing the language and knowing what to say. You can know the alphabet, but that doesn’t mean you know what to say and how to say it and when is the best time to say it. How do you express that? It’s about wisdom, precision and learning the language well. It’s about perfecting it, and Ben Riley was a perfectionist. It’s as simple as that.
I remember one time we hadn’t played for a while, maybe a couple years. But Ben, Kenny Barron and I got up on the bandstand and the sound was as though no time had gone by. Ben and I looked at each other and nodded; we swung from beat one. It’s not always a given that you’re going to have that kind of relationship with the person you’re sharing the bandstand with, but when you do it’s a happy time.
Ben, as a matter of fact, was a happy drummer! You could hear it in his beat. It ain’t about how much you play on the snare drum; you may have great technique beating on all of the other drums, but if you can’t play the ride cymbal, you’re a sad so-and-so. Ben certainly knew how to comp; he knew how to place accents so they accent the soloist more than the rhythm. He knew how, when and where to place the emphasis, and to do it with emotion and empathy. I tell my students all the time, “Study Ben Riley’s ride cymbal. That’s where the beat comes from.” Everything he did was so tasty.
Ben was a funny guy, too. Any time I was in his company I was laughing. He found the humor in life; he knew how to make light of everything. We would be on the road, and he could turn a bad situation into one that was hilarious. That was his way. He loved people, and he liked to see people laugh. He knew how to criticize in a very, very funny way. Someone can point out your shortcomings and it makes you feel like they’re putting you down. But Ben could do it in a way that would make you laugh about yourself. If you didn’t understand it, you could be a little taken aback—but I loved it.
Ben had diabetes, which can lead to so many other things. It started with a collapsed lung, and he even had to have a couple of toes removed. But even in that he found humor, and right on up until his last days his mind was alert and he was witty. I really miss him.