ADOLPHUS (Snooks) Riley was talking about his frequently interrupted musical career, which dates from the early '50s and has 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 has included membership in two area orchestras, the Howard Theater House Band and the D.C. Band and Choral Group of the Lorton Reformatory.
Riley, one of the 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 now 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 says, that his "decline" started. "After that it was, you know, in and out," he says of the "habit" he finally rid himself of five years ago.
It was also "in and out" of Lorton, 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. He is presently on a work-training program that allows him to work days and play gigs at night, although he must return to Lorton each night. Next year, if all has gone well, he will be eligible for a work-release program, which will place him in a halfway house.
"All of my offenses were property offenses," Riley says. "I took these people's merchandise and a stolen automobile to move it in," he says 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."
Riley, who will be playing at Tort (on Courthouse Square) tonight with the Ron Sutton Jr. Quartet and tomorrow with the Elsworth Gibson Trio, 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 recalls 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 the late Bennie Green, both of whom he considers 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."