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Add listening to this New Orleans jazz drummer to your 2024 bucket list


As you make your bucket list - see the Egyptian pyramids, experience the northern lights in Iceland, visit the Sistine Chapel in Rome - be sure to add hearing Herlin Riley in New Orleans. He's the dean of jazz drummers in the city that gave America rhythm. John Burnett has our profile.


JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Herlin Riley is setting up his drum kit on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Museum for an afternoon concert with a hot Cuban trio. There will be a good crowd. When Riley is on the bandstand, word gets around.

HERLIN RILEY: (Laughter).

BURNETT: To recycle an old descriptor, the 66-year-old drummer is a living legend. He's played with Ahmad Jamal, Wynton Marsalis, Danny Barker, Dr. John and Marcus Roberts, and he remains one of the most in-demand drummers here in the city known as the Cradle of Jazz. The emcee of today's concert, veteran jazz impresario Jason Patterson, pushes the boundaries of superlatives in his introduction.

JASON PATTERSON: How lucky we are.



PATTERSON: We've got the heaviest, heaviest drummer on the planet, pretty much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That right, Herlin?

RILEY: That's right.


BURNETT: Riley's playing is profound not only because he represents the quintessence of jazz, but also because he has the bloodline. He's part of the Lastie musical dynasty in New Orleans. His grandfather, drummer Frank Lastie, jammed with none other than Louis Armstrong when they both spent time at a juvenile detention facility called the Colored Waifs Home around 1915. Lastie went on to become a deacon who's credited with bringing the drums into church. Riley was raised by his grandparents.

RILEY: But I heard my grandfather playing these New Orleans street beat rhythms on the kitchen table using butter knives. After we'd have some toast and some eggs and he spread the butter on the bread, and he'd wipe the butter knives off, and then we'd have a game. And he'd play these rhythms for me on the table. And it sounded something like this.


BURNETT: Forty years later, Herlin Riley would be playing that butter knife beat with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.


BURNETT: The whole Lastie family was musical. In addition to his grandfather, his uncles were all professional musicians - saxophonist David Lastie Sr., trumpeter Melvin Lastie and drummer Popee Lastie. From them, he imbibed the sounds of shuffles, swing, funk, soul and blues.


BURNETT: And there was music from the sanctified church, where he learned how to play the tambourine, and brought it on to the bandstand.

RILEY: I started playing it after watching ladies in church play the tambourine. They would get these rhythms out of the tambourine that was just so incredible. And...

BURNETT: Tell me the church - classic church tambourine beat.


BURNETT: Among Riley's many admirers is Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, whose big band Riley played with for 17 years. They've known each other since they were teenagers playing in the storied Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band.

WYNTON MARSALIS: People see Herlin playing the tambourine. OK, he's a master of that, but Herlin can play all kinds of stuff.

BURNETT: Marsalis says when he hears Riley play the drums, he hears joy, spirituality, accuracy and an encyclopedic ability.

MARSALIS: He has a lot of experience playing with a lot of different people, everything from a burlesque show to playing with Ahmad Jamal to playing New Orleans parades to playing all the symphonic music we played. He has a kind of ancient wisdom and understanding that informs his songs.

BURNETT: The thing about a Herlin Riley performance is that you can't take your eyes off of him. He always has a euphoric smile that says he's having more fun than anybody else in the room. He's twirling his sticks in the air like a vaudeville drummer. And he's playing everything - tambourine, cowbell, woodblock, the drum shell, the other drumstick, a water pipe sticking out of the wall.


BURNETT: I saw Herlin a hotel gig on St. Charles Avenue. In the middle of his solo, the waiter held out a water pitcher, and he beat on that. A few minutes later, the waiter handed him a glass of red wine while he played a one-stick solo with his other hand.


DAVID TORKANOWSKY: He's one of the last of his kind. And by that, I mean directly connected to the origins of improvisational American music.

BURNETT: David Torkanowsky is a veteran New Orleans pianist who's been playing with Riley their whole adult lives.

TORKANOWSKY: You can hear the ancestry in his playing. The music here is so pure because it comes directly from Africa. So does his playing. I mean, it's just - you can't help but feel it, and you can't help but understand how grounded it is when you hear it.


BURNETT: This performance happened in November in New York City on pianist Emmet Cohen's popular YouTube channel, Live From Emmet's Place. Riley takes his renown as one of America's greatest living drummers with a grain of salt.

RILEY: I appreciate the respect, but I don't take it seriously. I take it, very very lightly because, you know, I'm a strong believer in God, and everything we have is by God's grace. And so I don't get too full of myself. I don't get too full of ego. I'm not the greatest. I'm just one of his vessels, one of the people that he put the light in.


BURNETT: There's something about breakout national artists who were born on the sacred rhythmic ground of the Crescent City. They never really leave home. They've always got that second-line, Tipitina's, Fat Tuesday sound going on in their musical mind. Here's Herlin Riley singing a New Orleans standard with the Emmet Cohen quartet.

RILEY: (Singing) Swing for me on a Mardi Gras day. Ho Natay, swing that. Swing for me on a Mardi Gras day. Ho Natay. Come on.

BURNETT: For NPR News, I'm John Burnett in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Burnett

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