Ray Reilly: Legendary Canadian Percussionist


At sixteen years of age, I first encountered Ray Reilly at Long and McQuade’s music store as an older guy with a beard playing some absolutely fantastic stuff on a snare drum. He acknowledged me checking him out. When he finished playing, he turned to me and said, “At no time when I did that did my fingers leave my hands.” A month or so later Ed Thigpen who was teaching at the Oscar Peterson School of Music, was going on the road with Oscar. Ed asked me, “Can you play?” and I said “Oh sure!” When I finished playing he said, “At least you’re still young!” Standing beside him was the guy with the beard. Ed said to me, “I know you probably don’t like classical music, but this is the guy you should study with.”

Ray studied with the two most iconic drum teachers of the time: Billy Gladston, who played with the famous Radio City Music Hall in New York City, and George Lawrence Stone in Boston. The paradox of Ray Reilly was: he was a great symphony and pit drummer, but he loved jazz. Like Ray, his great friend, Joe Morello, also studied from Gladstone and Stone. Ray eventually played with the Ballet Orchestra and traveled with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He also traveled to Montreal where he met his long time friend and counterpart, Pierre Béluse, an accomplished self-taught jazz drummer, who eventually student with Louis Charbonneau, percussion teacher at the Montreal Conservatoire. Charbonneau was also known for his original signature tympani stick. Ray met and respected Guy Nadon, Paul Lafortune and Bill Graham, the great bee bop drummer who had played in Montreal with Charlie Parker and Paul Bley.

Ray Reilly entered the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Seiji Ozawa where he played for many years until he retired. It was a magical, eclectic period. Musicians like the Stan Getz Quartet with drummer Roy Hanes played with the symphony. Ray performed on a recording of a piece by the contemporary Japanese composer, Toru Takamitsu with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flutes completed the composotion. Ray was known for multiple percussion parts that he played for ‘Spring Thaw’, a musical revue in Toronto. In a Toronto premiére of Karlheinz Stochkausen composition, Ray played all three percussion parts.

Bruce Wittet, writer and drum critic for the magazine, Drums Etc, describes the musical and teaching talent he recognized in Ray’s book:

“In 1968, the year in which Ray Reilly’s first drum instruction manual, Power, Speed and Flexibility was published by BMI, for a mere two dollars students could obtain a volume that ranks among the classic tutorials of all time. Ray’s studied with Billy Gladstone loom large. That is, drum technical development can concurrently serve the creation of nimbleness and rich tone. Ray’s exercises never bog down in clutter. Although his closing etudes become more complex, they never do so at the expense of musicality. As Ray remarks on page-37, “…make phrases flow. And sticking is acceptable, as long as it is musical and not just different. Amen.”

Ray loved custom made drums. He had a rare Billy Gladstone snare drum, and at the Montreal drum festival when his great friends, Ed Thigpen and Joe Morello made appearances, he met the Canadian drum maker, Paul Wells.

When Ray finally retired from the TSO, he played once a week with his life long friend, jazz pianist, Mike Lewis, in Bradford where he lived. At home, he practice his percussion in a geodesic dome that had perfect acoustics. Ray also taught the great rhythm and blues drummer Billy Blackburn and myself, Geordie McDonald, improving percussionist.

Ray is survived by his wife Bambi, his sons and his grandchildren.

One Response to Ray Reilly: Legendary Canadian Percussionist

  1. Jamie -

    February 29, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Thanks Geordie for sharing your knowledge and fond memories of a wonderful friend of Soul Drums and one of Canada’s premier percussionists, Mr. Ray Reilly. His infectious smile, quick wit and always entertaining and amusing stories will be truly missed. R.I.P. Ray.
    Doug Sole, Paul Bailie and all the staff at Soul Drums.

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