Mt. Airy's Lynn Riley, 'the Superwoman of the sax'

by Len Lear
Posted 7/28/21

There is an orchestra full of outstanding musicians in our area, but when it comes to the respect of fellow music-makers and critics, flutist and saxophonist Lynn Riley is right at the top of the mountain.

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Mt. Airy's Lynn Riley, 'the Superwoman of the sax'

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There is an orchestra full of outstanding musicians in our area, but when it comes to the respect of fellow music-makers and critics, flutist and saxophonist Lynn Riley is right at the top of the mountain. Writing about her CD, “Too Cool,” Denis Poole, of SmoothJazzTherapy.com echoed many other reviewers when he wrote “'Sedona' is a great example of the tight melodic vibe that characterizes much of this collection and is but one star in a constellation of outstanding tracks.”

A regular at the now-shuttered Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill, Riley has been a Mt. Airy resident for 30 years. “My sister fixed up an abandoned house in Mt. Airy that she bought at a Sheriff’s Sale, and then I bought it from her when she moved away.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Riley and her family moved a lot when she was growing up. They lived in Washington twice, Iowa and Philly's Main Line, where Riley went to Conestoga High School in Berwyn.

Riley attended college far away at the University of Hawaii because “they offered a degree in ethnomusicology, which I was interested in pursuing. In addition, my father got a job with an airline around that time, and I could fly there for free.” Riley also took courses at the University of Missouri but earned a Masters in Liberal Arts from the University of Pennsylvania just last year.

When asked her age (I ask every interviewee), Riley replied, “I have chosen to not give out my age as it contributes to ageism, and I don’t want to perpetuate age discrimination.”

Why did Riley choose the saxophone and flute? “In third grade I started learning French Horn (my father played it when he was young, and I wanted to be like my dad) and continued playing it all the way into college … At first, I transposed trombone parts in the Big Band because there were no parts for French horn. Improvising jazz on French horn is very difficult, so I taught myself flute. Then I was advised by my teacher to take up sax, as there is more work for jazz saxophonists than jazz flutists. That advice has served me well through the years and positioned me to work more often as a saxophonist and flutist.”

In addition to her performing career, Riley has been a composer and educator. She has shared stages with many great artists like Grover Washington Jr., Philly Joe Jones, David Bromberg, Rachelle Farrell, Charles Earland, Gerald Veasley and Johnny Pacheco, as well as leading her own group “Lynn Riley and the World-Mix.” She has often been described as "Superwoman of the sax”

What was the most memorable gig Riley ever played? “There were so many ... At its best, when things are right, I feel 'in the zone' and connecting with the audience. Performing at the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival a few years ago in Wilmington, DE, was one such night. The band was cooking, and every note we played was perfect. These are the moments that can make a musician realize they are doing what they were meant to do.”

As an educator, Riley has been a long-standing adjunct professor in the Performing Arts Department at Drexel University. She currently teaches World Music, directs the Drexel Fusion Band and oversees Drexel students in a community out-reach program to teach music to children in Mantua and Powelton Village.

Lynn has also performed in many foreign countries, including Ghana, Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia. “One particularly memorable concert,” she recalled, “was in Bucaramanga, Colombia, with the group Mama Julia and Los Sonidos Ambulantes. They play a fusion of jazz, rock, Reggae and traditional Afro-Colombian folk sounds, and the mix is right in line with what I do with my band.”

Since the pandemic started, Lynn did more than six live-stream performances from her living room. She is currently working on a new album that includes a song she wrote for her father when he was dying three years ago, a composition inspired by the Women’s March and a couple of songs related to the pandemic, “Keep your Head to the Sky” and “Covid Blues.”

What is the hardest thing Lynn ever had to do? “It can be hard to constantly hustle to put yourself out there, but even very accomplished musicians have to do it.”

For more information about Lynn's upcoming performances, visit lynnriley.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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