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The ups and Downs of a Musician's Life in Jazz

Drummer John Riley, 52, plays with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in New York City.

I graduated in 1976 from North Texas State University with a degree in jazz studies and went right to New York City. My dream: to play with the music's innovators. But I took any music job I could find -- in other words, lots of weddings. At that time, composers in New York led rehearsal bands, and maybe once a year they'd get a paying gig. Not many drummers would schlep their gear all over town on the subway for nothing, but I did. Players in those rehearsal bands started recommending me for the better society dance bands and an occasional recording session.


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A year out of college, I married Susan, whom I'd known since the ninth grade. Her job sustained us, so I didn't need to wait tables. Then in 1978 I joined Woody Herman's big band on the road. We had no days off. Susan was great about it, but you can't keep a marriage alive that way. Upon returning to New York, paying, stimulating situations were few and far between. I continued practicing and growing.

To help make a living, many jazz musicians teach on the side or play Broadway shows. I enjoy teaching several days a week. Eventually, enough players knew about me, and things opened up. Tours with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and John Scofield really established me. The great drummer Mel Lewis sent me to jobs he couldn't take and then to sub for him in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. After Mel died in 1990, the band kept on as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. I ultimately became its drummer -- Mel's chair -- an honor that has lasted 15 years.

I'm on the road about 100 days a year. Between worldwide performances, university teaching and royalties from my books, my earnings are in the low six figures. But this is about more than money. Every so often come moments of telepathy between jazz musicians, when the music exquisitely fuses us and creates an intense, eureka-type sensation. The feeling lasts a second, or an entire concert. You live for such instants.

-- As told to Fred W. Frailey