Upstairs from Clancy’s Cantina, at 311 Broadway, near Jack London Square, is the Aqua Lounge, a refugee from the post-Moderne, Scandinavian design period of cocktail joints. A no-nonsense, but easygoing, comfortable kind of place, with no pretensions.
“It’s retro-’60s!” says drummer Sly Randolph, as he lugs his kit upstairs to set up for the Howard Wiley Organ Trio gig that’s happening every Sunday evening at 6 p.m. The Aqua Lounge is something of a refuge, too, for the kind of music Howard and Co. play at these Soul Jazz Sundays—jazz that comes out of the blues, with a lot of swing.
“There’s not much jazz at all in Oakland,” Howard said. “Where do you go to hear it? It’s pretty rough.”
Coltrane playing “Lush Life” is on the sound system, from back in what looks like an old coat-check. Sly gives a couple of drumrolls, Mike Aaberg sounds a few chords on keyboards. The recorded music goes off. Mike, like Howard, is a Berkeley High Jazz Band alum.
“But I didn’t meet Mike till I was in my 20s,” Howard said. “Not until he moved in to be roommates with my buddy, who told me, ‘He likes to play fast like you!’ Then we started playing, hanging out ... It’s all been downhill since!”
John Ivey of Clancy’s is behind the bar, boisterous and in love with the music, shouting encouragement once it gets going—and they’re really laying it down right from the start, no warm-ups. “You watch out,” cries Ivey in approval, as Mike’s fingers race up and down the keyboard, and Howard picks it up from there, takes a few choruses, then a few more.
“All we try to do here on Sunday,” Howard explains later, “is to get down to something simple, get back ... Even if you don’t like jazz, there’s something in there you’ll like. We’re all still singing these songs. Nobody’s playing any disco, no Hall & Oates anymore—and Smooth Jazz just officially died.”
Hard to imagine Hall & Oates playing in the Aqua Lounge. Not now, with the trio’s soulful sound you can taste in your mouth and savor. Sly turns it over, and Howard goes inside a little, then out. A mellow sound, but it’s an irresistable force—and not an immovable object in sight.
Next number, John’s face lights up: “Sugar, sugar! Stanley T!” as the band swings into it. “He’s playing Stanley Turrentine like Dexter Gordon!”
Howard’s blowing with increasing drive, yet still taking his time. A little vibrato, then he makes it wail. Ivey laughs and claps his hands as Howard continues to take it up, squealing, almost like falsetto.
Sly hits a quick series, bringing Howard down, but out—and faster. Soon, Howard is wailing again. Drums, sax, organ get together furiously, spiraling up together, then dropping down again. Mike strides a bit, shooting from the hip, gunning ‘em down.
Soul Jazz Sundays has a $5 cover, but the cover is waived if you’re having dinner. Lady Dee’s Southern Cafe is downstairs, in Clancy’s, with daily specials: on Saturday and Sunday, short ribs, or oxtail, or fried or smothered chicken, with sides like yams, collard greens, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, macaroni & cheese, for under $20. (Friday is Mardi Gras night, with jambalaya.) Drink prices are very reasonable. And there is the music.
Howard is from Oakland. “I grew up in a Baptist church between the drums and the organ.” He started out with a blues band, Carl “Good Rockin’” Robinson, one of the veterans of the once-famous East Bay Sound, nuances telling the listener if the players were from Oakland or Richmond.
Howard remembers meeting Jules Broussard, playing with Faye Carol, “totally getting my act together playing honky-tonk, not learning ‘Giant Steps’ in every key, every permutation in ‘Countdown.’”
Howard also recalled John Turk stopping the band rehearsing for a gig, “telling me he was tired of me developing my solo. All these guys used walk the bar, playing blues gigs, rhythm & blues gigs. It’s part of the music, coming straight off the streets. It has the pulse to it. What made jazz great was the swing and groove, how it merged with storytelling through blues. That’s the one common thread running through jazz music. Take it out, you have nothing. All the substance is gone. And when it’s gone, the music becomes boring. I’m tired of going out and being bored to death.”
Another side of what he’s been trying to do is expressed by his Angola Project, with one CD out and another to be released in the fall. “It’s very adventurous. We interpret spirituals with complex harmonics, the group has singers, two violins ...”
Commissioned to create a 12-movement suite by Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco, awarded a grant by the Aaron Copland Foundation, the project comes out of trips with his old schoolmate Daniel Atkinson to Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, a working prison farm, like the more famous Parchman Farm in Mississippi, where prisoners are encouraged to sing while working. Howard describes a trip when prisoners convinced a man who hadn’t sang for six years to sing again.
“My jaw dropped,” Howard said. “And later, when Faye Carol heard the song, she almost cried; Sly did. Hearing this music I’d never heard before reminded me of what my grandmother from Louisiana told me those old deacons used to do in church.”
Mike’s skirling out arabesques up and down the keys. Sly’s been hitting hard; Howard mellows it out after the frantic runs—and now Sly’s dancing with the brushes on the skins. “Max Roach!” John Ivey exclaims. The pulse can be felt all the way downstairs, heard out in the street.
“My grandfather used to tell me, ‘You start out like a horse at the races, find your speed level right off. You’ve got to get into it,’” Howard said. “He used to play sax a little, had a short stint with Count Basie.”
Once at a gig with Marcus Shelby, a writer came up to the stage and asked Howard, ‘Are you related to Sam Wiley?’
“I tell him that was my grandfather,” Howard said. “He says, ‘Now you’re making me feel old!’”
The writer was Phil Elwood, the late popular music critic for the San Francisco Examiner.
HOWARD WILEY ORGAN TRIO
6 p.m. Sundays at the Aqua Lounge, 311 Broadway, Oakland.