[This is from 2006, 2007 and today. Herman Riley died on April 14, 2007.]
Saxophonist Herman Riley died this weekend.
My favorite ever piece of writing I ever did in the LA Weekly was about Herman Riley. Thought I’d repeat it here. It was the result of an incredible half hour interview, Herman just spinning out his life story. It was so hard to boil down to its very essence. But then I thought about how he did that in his playing, and the words just rolled out. When he read it he told me that it was one of the first times he had ever seen anything in print about him. Just about him. I couldn’t believe that this man, this extraordinary saxophonist, had been ignored by the jazz media who really ought to know better. This man deserved reams of coverage. But getting 200 words and a picture made him happy. He left a phone message I still treasure afterward. I don’t think a writer knows what to do then. You dash off a few words about a man, a man’s artistry, a man’s life and more people read that than have probably ever heard this man front a quartet. A couple hundred words are absolutely nothing. Not a damn thing. They didn’t even draw a crowd….Charlie O’s was sparse that night. I didn’t even show. This town never did realize just how extraordinary Herman Riley was. How he could move you. How you could get utterly lost in his ballad playing. His notes fade away into memory. And when we go, the memories go.
I once I asked him when he was going to record again. He only had a single album released sometime in the ’80’s and impossibly hard to find. He said he was thinking about it, but wanted to wait until he was ready.
Anyway, here’s the piece….
Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.
That was it. 169 words. The most press he’d ever gotten in his lifetime.
(Later….) It’s only been a few years since his passing and already Herman Riley has passed into the twilight of jazz history. That light fades every year, He’s seems almost non-existent on the internet. Not completely–there’s a taste below–but there’s little of him even on YouTube, a medium that seems to keep people alive forever. I can find nothing of him as a leader. His Wikipedia entry consists of three terse sentences and seven discography listings. His own album is not one of them. His All Music biography is a bit longer, his album Herman is listed (and given five stars) but there’s no review, not even who played what. There’s an extensive list of other people’s records he played on, though. I suppose if you dug around the internet you could glean a bit more information. Not much though, not enough to get an idea who Herman Riley was or why people sat absolutely still, barely breathing when he blew that fat tenor sax so airily on a ballad. Some tones you can reach out and touch. Others your hand would pass right through. LIke it wasn’t even a real sound, but a spirit sound. He could be loud and powerful and brilliant and gutbucket, whatever, when the music swung or stomped or broke completely free. So real. But on the ballads he had a spirit sound, incorporeal, like it came from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside. A place we couldn’t see but only hear, and sometimes, as the pads closed silently, not even hear. Only feel.
Like so many great black jazz musicians who never became famous, a generation from now Herman Riley will be known only to the few still around that remember him, and some particularly diligent archivists. Maybe one of them will write a book. Maybe one of them will compile his recordings, Maybe one of them will let posterity know Herman Riley was one of the best saxophonists this town ever had.
Rest in peace, Mr. Riley, I wrote back then. And I can still hear him now in my head, stretching out the notes of a Sentimental lMood, till nothing remained but air and a room stilled, listening, feeling his feelings in their bones.