Drummer Ben Riley Dies at 84

Made vital contributions to classic recordings by Monk, Rollins, Johnny Griffin/Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and many more

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Ben Riley with bassist Percy Heath in New York City, 1977 (photo by Tom Marcello)

A full 16 years ago, a report in JazzTimes stated that the resolutely swinging drummer Ben Riley had been suffering from “more than his share of medical problems,” including lung illness, diabetic complications and a recent foot surgery that kept him off the drum throne for months. But Riley—whose six-decade career was highlighted by a three-year stint with the Thelonious Monk Quartet during the mid-’60s—was nothing if not tenacious: He remained musically active into the present decade, leading a Monk tribute band and even reportedly playing with musicians who visited the nursing home where he resided.

Riley died on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, N.Y. He was 84. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Kim, and reported on the website of jazz radio station WBGO. No cause of death was cited.

Benjamin Alexander Riley Jr. was born on July 17, 1933, in Savannah, Ga., and grew up in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he began playing drums during his childhood. Following a stint in the Army, he turned pro in the ’50s, accompanying saxophonists Stan Getz and Sonny Stitt and pianist Randy Weston early in his career.

Riley contributed to an estimated 300 albums, including more than a dozen cut with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin between 1960 and ’62—most of them also featuring Griffin’s classic two-tenor hookup with saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. In 1962 he made waves via his work with Sonny Rollins on the canonical album The Bridge, the saxophonist’s first release following his historic sabbatical.

Riley’s association with Monk began in 1964 with the album It’s Monk’s Time, also featuring bassist Butch Warren and saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Riley also recorded with the pianist in ’64 for Monk. and Live at the It Club, and appears on 1966’s Straight, No Chaser and ’68’s Underground. (Larry Gales played bass on all but the first LP; all of the recordings were made for Columbia Records.)

In the mid-to-late-1960s, Riley began a brief musical relationship with Alice Coltrane, playing on her highly regarded albums A Monastic Trio (1968) and Ptah, the El Daoud (1970). The late ’60s and 1970s found the drummer contributing to LPs led by Andrew Hill, Ron Carter, Red Garland and others, as well as beginning a lengthy association with pianist Kenny Barron that resulted in the band Sphere and several albums under Barron’s name, the most recent (Minor Blues) released in Japan in 2009. Pianists were especially fond of Riley’s artfully assured rhythmic approach. In addition to those mentioned, his collaborators included Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Abdullah Ibrahim, Billy Taylor and Roland Hanna.

Keyboardist Mike LeDonne, posting on his Facebook page, described Riley as having “that non-pampered, no-nonsense, shut-up-and-play-your-ass-off mindset [that] also came out in his personality in how funny he was. He didn’t take life all that seriously and he certainly didn’t take himself all that seriously.”

Riley’s drumming continued to grace recordings throughout the ’80s. Sphere launched as a Monk tribute project in 1982. Also consisting of Rouse, Barron and bassist Buster Williams (with Gary Bartz taking over for Rouse upon the latter’s death in 1988), the group cut several albums for Elektra, Verve and the Italian Red label, breaking off into original material after their 1982 debut, Four in One. Riley also appeared on a pair of trumpeter Chet Baker’s final recordings, As Time Goes By and Cool Cat, both issued on the Dutch Timeless label.

It wasn’t until relatively late in his career that Riley stepped up to become a leader, releasing the albums Weaver of Dreams (a trio recording from the 1990s, featuring Williams and saxophonist Ralph Moore); Memories of T (2006, with Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet); and Grown Folks Music (2012, a quartet recording featuring saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Ray Drummond and guitarists Avi Rothbard and Freddie Bryant alternating on tracks).

Read Harvey Pekar’s review of Riley’s Weaver of Dreams

Read Geoffrey Himes’ review of Riley’s Memories of T