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Adolphus Riley: 1925-2002
Adolphus Riley

Born: 1925 in Washington, DC
Died: May 3, 2002 in Washington, DC

Trombonist Snooks Riley

by W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 2002 W. Royal Stokes


Adolphus "Snooks" Riley played trombone at Washington jazz clubs and backed blues singers, including Ruth Brown and Nap Turner, died at home in Washington. He had hypertension.  

W Royal Stokes remembers the trombonist:

I interviewed Adolphus (Snooks) Riley almost two decades ago for a profile in the Washington Post and got him talking about his frequently interrupted musical career, which dated from the early 1950s and included work in a number of Washington jazz clubs, tours with Sonny Til and the Orioles, and nearly a year on the road with rhythm-and-blues singer Ruth Brown. It also included membership in two Washington, D.C.-area orchestras, the Howard Theater House Band and the D.C. Band and Choral Group of the Lorton Reformatory.

Riley, one of the D.C. area's finest be-bop-style trombonists, was born in the District, attended the old Armstrong High School and hung out with youngsters whose names are familiar to jazz fans the world over: tenor saxophonists Buck Hill and Charlie Rouse, trombonist Bill Hughes and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Then, in the mid-'50s when he was barely halfway through his 20s, he "ran into some slick cats in Texas who introduced me to heroin." It was then, he told me, that his "decline" started. "After that it was, you know, in and out," he said of the "habit" he finally rid himself of in the late 1970s. It was also "in and out" of Lorton Prison, where Riley served 2 1/2 years of a seven-year sentence for larceny in the early '60s and where he began an 8- to 24-year sentence in '77 on a similar charge. By 1983 he was on a work-training program that allowed him to work days and play gigs at night, although he had to return to Lorton each night. In 1984 he became eligible for a work-release program, which placed him in a halfway house.

"All of my offenses were property offenses," Riley said. "I took these people's merchandise and a stolen automobile to move it in," he said of the '77 incident, "and I think what happened was they got tired of seeing my face and tired of hearing my name in the criminal justice system and they knocked me out of the box." In prison again, this time without his instrument, Riley went to work composing children's songs on an electric keyboard, a loan from Lorton. Eventually he was provided a trombone through the efforts of friends on the outside who told him, "Hey, man, we ain't going to let you go because we know that you can do better things."

In the '80s and '90s Riley played with such D.C.-area groups and musicians as the Ron Sutton Jr. Quartet, the Elsworth Gibson Trio, Maurice Robertson, Larry Scott, Dave Jernigan, and Hugh Walker. He played during the millennium celebration on the Mall with the Nap Turner Blues Band.

Riley got hooked on jazz at the age of nine or 10 when his mother granted him the privilege of staying up until 9 o'clock to listen to the big bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James, and others. He recalled standing in the alley a few years later to hear the combos that played the Seventh and T Cocktail Lounge and going to Howard Theater matinees of the Earl Hines and Louis Prima orchestras. He took piano lessons for a while and "was doing pretty good until I started taking the money and going to the movies. That stopped me from doing anything musical until my last year of high school. After Charlie Parker came through here and everybody was talking about playing instruments, I attacked the trombone."

Musician friends helped Riley toward an understanding of musical notation, and when he was on the road several years later he received sporadic coaching by fellow trombonist Benny Powell and Bennie Green, both of whom he consided major influences on his style. "All these people, at this particular stage of my musical life, were helping me to really get into the music and formulate some idea of what direction I wanted to take."

Riley's "habit" was broken intermittently by prison or, when he was on the outside, "cold turkey--no therapy, no program." In 1970 he went to work for the Narcotics Treatment Administration Youth Program. He was assigned to Fort Belvoir as a drug abuse counselor and until 1976 worked with alcoholics, marijuana smokers and pill users. He would drop around to rehearsals of the service band there and sit in. From that association came gigs off the base.

"And that leads pretty much into right now," Riley observed. Asked how the story of his life began to repeat itself in 1977, he was silent for a moment. "I want to remember that because that's a good question. I mean, that's a question that I should always want to remember. I was at a party one night and it was being passed around and instead of my leaving I stayed--that's exactly what happened. It was an 'H' party, but I didn't know this before I got there. The party was given by a big dealer, and I was there."

[This piece orinally appeared, in a slightly different form, in The Washington Post on January 14, 1983.]

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post's jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently at work on a memoir and his fourth collection of profiles of jazz and blues musicians.


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