Howard Wiley has earned the right to talk. At age 37, the saxophone prodigy (and drummer) has a cool 25 years of professional gigs under his belt. He has toured with the likes of Lauryn Hill. He counts some of the Bay’s great jazz artists as his mentors. His band Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy, which plays at Madrone Art Bar every Wednesday from 10pm to close, is comprised exclusively of shredders with equally stacked resumes: drummer Thomas Pridgen, organist Lionel “LJ” Holoman, and bassist Michael “Tiny” Lindsay.
But according to his friend and collaborator Meklit, “The only thing you need to know about Howard is that he just wants to go 100 percent for music.” That intensity only grew over the course of an hour-long interview before his weekly Tuesday gig at Harris’ Restaurant. (Wiley will appear at SFJAZZ, Sat/22, to “tackles the music of Billy Strayhorn by way of Joe Henderson’s 1992 GRAMMY-winning Verve masterpiece Lush Life.”)
In expletive-laden terms, Howard laid out exactly what he sees wrong with pop, jazz, Bay Area nightlife, and even his own saxophone solos. It turns out that Howard Wiley knows how to dish it out because he’s taken his share of licks – and he’ll be the first to tell you all about them.
48 HILLS What are you doing with Extra Nappy that you haven’t been able to do before?
HOWARD WILEY When we started talking to Madrone about having something regular, I was like, “Yo, I want to start a scene.” You used to be able to go to North Beach, and it was some kind of hang. If you wanted to hear some jazz, shoot some pool, grab a slice. The Mission, same thing: hear a Latin band, hear some jazz, grab a taco, have this Mariachi dude sing to you in tight jeans. San Francisco had a vibe, and that’s missing.
Listening to our peers and new music, it’s either super heady and bullshit boring, or it’s A Tribute to Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue. I think one of the best things about our band is, most times, we don’t have a singer; people are dancing and singing along when there’s nobody telling them what to sing. What we’re playing is recognizable enough that they’re feeling that, but it’s still very improvisatory.
48H Is it true that you guys don’t practice or have a set list?
HW Oh, we don’t even talk about music.
48H How do you know what you’re going to play next?
HW When you grow up in church with the gospel quartet tradition, you hear everybody switch parts within the group: the tenor starts singing the alto part, the alto starts singing the bass part, the bass starts soloing. So you’re listening for that, and you’re able to navigate through that. So if we’re playing Rihanna, and I start playing Coltrane changes to Giant Steps, Tiny’s gonna hear that and start playing Coltrane changes to Giant Steps.
It can only work with certain [musicians] who are serious, dedicated, and come up in the church. Thomas, Tiny, and LJ tour a lot, and when LJ is out of town with like Dr. Dre, doing crazy shit, there’s only a couple of guys who can play with us and understand: Mike Blankenchip and Mike Aaberg on organ, Darien Grey and James Small on drums, and Marcus Phillips and Vernon Hall on bass
48H What does coming up in the church do for you as a musician that is different from, say, studying an instrument in school?
HW The 20th-century black church had the highest standard of musicality at the time. It’s that brutal honesty: if you’re not playing the beat right, they’re going to tell you to get off. They’ll be, “Hey, thank you, brother Wiley, not today.” You don’t know what key it’s gonna be in, what hymn the pastor is feeling like singing, and it has to go, it has to fit, it has to be within the vocabulary of the music you’re playing. And when you’re doing well, you will be exalted.
48H Describe one of your mentors and how they influenced your music.
HW John Turk — I’m so thankful for that rehearsal he cussed me out, and made me feel stupid, and everybody laughed. I’m grateful. Without the stuff I learned from that, I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a saxophone player.
48H Do you remember what he said to you?
HW Oh, like it was yesterday! I was playing with Faye Carol’s blues band, and I really love old school jazz, and he stops me. He’s like, “Motherfucker, what are you playing? We don’t have all day to wind up while you take this long-ass romantic jazz solo. You need to learn honky-tonk. People are tryna dance!” And I went back and listened and learned honky-tonk. Life-changer. I came back at the next rehearsal, I’m like, “I wanna play honky-tonk.”
48H Do you have any other public embarrassments you’d like to share?
HW There’s a great singer here named Kenny Washington, and I love Kenny Washington, but I hate Kenny Washington, and I’ll tell you why: I’m doing this gig. Kenny Washington is singing. Like, this little motherfucker sings great. My fiancée is there, my new fiancée. We’re playing “What a Wonderful World.” I’m on brushes – it’s beautiful. She’s looking at Kenny, I’m looking at her. I see a tear come out her eye. I almost stop the show. I almost knocked him over. I’m like, “This is the last time y’all seeing each other. Fuck this!” I’m like, “Yo! He is not putting in on that ring at all. That shit was expensive.”
48H You’ve been a professional musician for more than 20 years. Has it gotten easier or harder to make a living during that time?
HW It’s weird navigating the new demographic. We want to charge a door fee at Madrone. I want to pay these guys more, but Madrone has had such a problem with the door fee. I’m like really, you guys [attendees]? Your rent is so much money.
I was making more money playing jazz, which is hilarious. I used to play really crazy Ornette Coleman-style straight-ahead, and then The Angola Project was prison music and slave chants. Making way more money than I am playing dance music.
48H Why are you still doing it?
HW Girl, have you heard that music? That shit is knocking. We barely say hi. I’m at rehearsals [for other bands], and people are going through all this, and it sounds bad. So I feel really blessed that these guys are committed to playing with me.
I’m so disappointed in music now. Music used to be the one thing we can count on that’s real. As destructive as gangster rap was, it has that element that you can relate to ’cause it’s real. That element has been lost. Bruno Mars has been coming out and saying, “Hey, this is all black music. Period.” Thank you – because he’s been Justin Timberlaking me to death. But as much as I love the fact that he’s saying it, that shit is frosting. That shit is fake. It’s not Stevie Wonder. It’s not Prince. It’s not Chaka Kahn. It’s not Aretha Franklin. It don’t have that same realness to it.
48H You teach at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and at various schools around the Bay Area. How do you get the kids to pay attention to jazz in a frosting-music world?
HW There’s this Eddie Harris record I love called The Reason Why I’m Talking Shit. It’s just all the [lewd, sexual] stuff he says in between shows. So if I go to ’hood schools and the young people ask why am I into music, I’m like, “I love all the dumb shit about people you love. The reason why I love Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan – they were pimps! Like, how’re you practicing, revolutionizing music, and pimping? Time management.” And so I get the kids’ ears.
48H Is that enough to make them want to practice their instrument?
HW Yes and no. I’m meeting some really talented children and just realizing how economic-based this is. There’s this young man named Angel: he taught himself how to play saxophone after seeing Sergio the Sax Man, and he went around school running into everybody’s classrooms playing “Careless Whisper.” And then he just started getting better at it, taught himself how to read music, started going to class. Very talented young man, loves my music classes, but has to work to help his family.
I work with a lot of young girls. It’s turning me into a damn feminist. I had a reunion with a student in Boston the other day, and all we talked about was institutionalized sexism and racism and the effect it’s having, especially on these young black girls, who grow up hating the way they look. They are so preoccupied with this way of being that they can’t be, and there’s nothing wrong with how they are. So I’m finding a lot of challenges that having a strong community would help, if they had a strong community, if they had more than two black men telling them how beautiful they are.
That’s why I like being there at the community level. Not just finding the next prodigy, but saying this kid could be a great person, and great people create great music.
48H After 25 years in the industry, what more do you want out of your career?
HW I want to release music with Extra Nappy and be able to tour internationally and shine light on the great musicians we have here in the Bay Area. And shine light on the O.G.’s that should really have some attention, like Faye Carol, Chester Thompson, Ed Kelly, Eddie Marshall, Smiley Winters, Morris Atchison. And have people find those people in they community, so we don’t just have to praise John Coltrane ’cause he had a record contract. I would like to take that part of my music to the next level.
And just be a complete, utter, bad motherfucker on the horn. Just be like, bad. When you see me play my horn, I want to make sure dudes never let go of they woman ’cause they scared I’ma go home with they woman when I play the saxophone. That’s my real thing. So I can really be honest with my wife. So instead of in my head saying, “Shut up,” I can say it out loud. I could be like, “Shut up.” And not be scared.
You can find Howard Wiley and Extra Nappy every Wednesday, 10pm-close, at Madrone Art Bar in SF. Wiley will be appearing at SFJAZZ, Sat/22, 8pm-9:30pm. On July 2, Wiley will appear at the Fillmore Jazz Festival to release his new album with drummer Jerome Jennings.