Wynton Marsalis on DJ


For about one and a half hours after the gig in San Diego on Saturday night, I stood on the sidewalk outside the backstage area with about sixty high school age students, their band directors and chaperones, signing autographs, taking pictures and fielding questions about everything from, “Should I whip my younger brother’s behind for x, y and z?” to “How many hours did you practice when you were my age?”

As the group wound down and I got into the car to leave, there were three sixteen year-old kids (they looked about that age) that asked for a picture. There was one who was very deeply engaged and he asked, “What does it take to be a really good musician?” I thought for a little while before answering, giving him the impression that I would provide some unknown and highly valuable key and said “You have to WANT to be.”

He searched my eyes for a second as if to say, “Man, are you messing with me?” Sensing his skepticism I said “No, lil’ brother. If you really want to be that good, you will figure out whatever you have to, to be what you want to be.” In the moment I tried to think of some analogy or story to help make the point more simply, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Little did I know that the next day as we pulled into the hotel in Northridge we would be greeted in the lobby by DJ Riley.

DJ is an intellectual of the first order. He is a connoisseur of culture, has been a good friend of JALC from the very beginning and is a purveyor of deep-rooted soul. He suffers from Morquio Syndrome, and has been in a wheelchair with very little limb movement since childhood. You wouldn’t know it by how much smack he talks, but I know it was a challenge for DJ to be here today. He lives in LA, and it takes a lot of planning for him to get around.

He is a broad and long-term thinker, who gives unerring and aggressively positive advice. Any opportunity to hang with him is to be cherished. So far, he has outlived his life expectancy by about 25 years.

I start out by saying to him, “Man, I wish you would have told me you were coming.” And he asks “Why? So you could convince me not to come?”

We talk about everything from the hood to Putin to education reform. He is a true blues man: “Yes, stuff is messed up out here but: Everything gon’ be alright this mornin’. Everything gon’ be alright.”

I’m reminded of a dance the LCJO played in the late 90’s out here in California. It was well attended and well under way, but still the people were just standing around being too shy to get out on the floor. Suddenly, DJ breaks out there scooting around with his electric wheelchair, doing his thing. It was the damnedest sight. Truly poetic. He actually got people out on the floor from a wheelchair.

After the gig as we all laughed and teased him about his dancing style, we asked him, “Why did you do it?” He said, “Man, I came here to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did. Y’all was swingin’. Herlin man! He was playing those drums.”

Yeah, DJ and I laughed thinking back on it. And I remembered that teenager from the night before who was looking for more out of my answer. I should have told him about DJ.

It’s now 4:00 pm and time for DJ to leave and for us to go to sound check. He only speaks in a whisper, so he signals for me to get close enough to hear. “When y’all come around Los Angeles, just assume I’m coming.”

That’s what I should have told the youngster.


Greetings to DJ from R. Veal

Hey DJ,

I hope this finds you well, in good spirits and full of LIFE!!

Man, it’s always good to hear from you!  Would be great to see you.  I’m in Norway as I type this to you with Dianne Reeves.  We’ve been hitting it hard.  We recorded a record earlier this year with all kinds of guests artists.  It’s sort of a departure from the previous material she has done.  Terri Lynne produced it.  I think the release date will be in September or November.  Don’t quote me on that though. 🙂

Dude, I just wanted to acknowledge you as my friend and a great Man!  Your E-mails are inspirational.  I miss seeing you when I come to LA.  Remember the Hollywood Bowl when you would show up?  Or UCLA campus?  What about when you would come way over here to hang at Northsea or otherwise.  You’re a strong Brother.

The Father’s Day E-mail you sent out struck a chord in me.  My Father is turning 80, July 16th.  That’s a blessing.  We lost my Mom in 1999 but my Dad is still well and kicking.  When I return to the USA, I will see him and I’m so excited about it.  Last time I saw him was a couple of months ago when I went home to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  I recently moved to Texas and I invited my Dad to my house to spend some one on one time.  I’m flying my oldest son out to hang out with us too, and my Wife’s Dad who has never met my Dad.  They’ve never met because we’ve been married a little over a year and didn’t have a wedding…and with my schedule, there wasn’t a whole lot of hoop la with the Families to meet.  Shoot –  we eloped anyway.  No one would have ever thought we would have gotten married.  Well, we’re all happy.  But, it touched me when you spoke about Family (as you always do) and your Dad.  This is important and I truly believe in Family.  Thank you Brother.

You sound like you have a Beautiful Family and support system around you.  Although we have never met, send them my warm regards.  You know, not to get all mushy in this E-mail, but the Love they show to you is the Love you have shown/given in life to many, and the testament to the type of person and Man you are.  DJ, you have always been a cool Brother and when you walk into a room there is a bright light surrounding you.  Your energy is true, pure and just great.  I remember wanting to swing harder, sound better, be better…just because you were around.  You had this energy about you – all in your eyes like — Ya’ll better swing and play me some good music!! LOL Trust me, your presence was always felt and still is.  Keep on keepin on.  And may God Bless your precious Family!

At some point when you get a moment, send me your number.  I would love to hear your voice over a phone chat.  Better yet, it would be great to see you.  Don’t know how we can work that one out.

Yeah…but I’m still out here trying to do the right thing and make a difference.  Trying to Swing, Groove and live Life.  I trust you are doing the same.

Okay DJ, take care of yourself and God Bless.  I’ll be up with you soon.

Peace Love and Blessings,

Reginald Veal

PS  I didn’t forget — Happy Early Birthday and a Gotzillion MORE!!!  Enjoy your day!