Coming out of the rich tradition of New Orleans jazz Herlin Riley is a respected drummer and band leader. He began his career in the 1980s as a member of pianist Ahmad Jamal's group and went on to perform with artists such as Harry Connick Jr., George Benson and Marcus Roberts. In 1988, he formed a long-standing relationship with Wynton Marsalis, playing in his various groups and with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Riley also played a key role in developing the drum parts for Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize-winning album, "Blood on the Fields." In 2000 Riley released his first album as leader and went on to release several more albums over the next two decades. Additionally, Riley nurtures young talent by recruiting them for his bands and by leading jazz clinics and master classes across the country.
Early in his career Herlin Riley played drums and trumpet for a burlesque show in New Orleans. Herlin Riley appeared in the 2020 film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Herlin Riley unknowingly played in the same youth marching band as Wynton Marsalis.
Herlin Riley was born in New Orleans in 1957 and grew up in a musical family. His grandfather was a drummer and his uncles were also musicians, including trumpeter Melvin Lastie. Riley began playing the drums when he was 3 years old and continued to do so throughout his youth although during high school and college he spent time focusing on the trumpet. He attended Southern University where he studied music and decided to returned drumming, his first love. During his twenties Riley spent time touring with a doo-wop band, worked with trumpeter Al Hirt and played in the New Orleans and London runs of the show "One Mo' Time" before joining Ahmad Jamal's band in 1984.