By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, Berkeley High Jazz Band alum, will perform with his trio and with acclaimed poet Amiri Baraka Monday night at Yoshi’s in Oakland.
“We’ll be celebrating the music and celebrating Amiri Baraka’s work,” Wiley said. “He just put out a new book, Somebody Blew Up America (House of Nehesi Publishers) which he’ll be definitely reading from, as well as other, selected works. And off the cuff. It’s always a pleasure to work with him. What he does is so much in the spirit of jazz improvisation. He uses the music as a backdrop—and works his poetry into the playing.”
Wiley talked about what music he and his trio—Sly Randolph on drums and bassist David Ewell—will draw from. “We’ll play some music by Monk, Coltrane, ‘Tintindeo,’ a Dizzy Gillespie selection ... and Amiri has his way, he can go in so many different directions. He’s extremely fluid, like Don Cherry was, with the sensitivity of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown’s sense of articulation. Such expression; such a joy to work with.”
Wiley mentioned three great trumpeters to describe different aspects of Baraka’s style. All three are musicians Baraka has written about, among others, in articles and books about jazz in particular and African-American music in general, like his influential Blues People.
“Blues People is one of the things that got me into the music,” Wiley said, “and some of his articles, like ‘Jazz and the White Critic.’ It’s more about the history of the music, the social and political implications that so many musicians forget about ... He shows that what made these cats so great is that they had such purpose behind the music, that they made it up themselves. And that’s what makes Amiri Baraka so great, that same sense of purpose. When you listen to him recite, speaking by himself, it’s so musical, so melodic, so rhythmic.”
Baraka, under his birthname LeRoi Jones, emerged in the 1950s and ‘60s as one of the most distinctive poets of his generation, his poems featured in magazines and books from Evergreen/Grove Press and his own Totem/Yugen Press. He was featured in the influential Donald Allen-edited anthology The New American Poetry.
In the ‘60s, beginning with The Dutchman, his plays premiered in celebrated productions, often with live accompaniment by great jazz players like Jackie McLean. He performed and recorded with the avantgarde New York Art Quartet; a reunion concert in 1999 was followed by a studio recording with Baraka performing a range of his poetry on the tracks.
From the late ‘60s on, Baraka has been involved in progressive and African American political and social work, while continuing to write, often with a satirical edge. In the wake of 9/11, Baraka’s poem about the event—the title poem of his new collection—stirred up controversy. Some political figures in New Jersey tried to rescind Baraka’s previous appointment as state poet laureate. Discovering there were no legal grounds for removing him from the position, Baraka’s detractors tried to eliminate the position itself.
Wiley’s performed with Baraka several times over the past five years.
“The first time I ever worked with him was for a celebration of his entire body of work,” Wiley said. “I worked with him and [tenor saxophonist] David Murray [another Berkeley High alum] on the production of his play, The Sisyohus Syndrome, at the East Side Arts Alliance ... and at the African American Museum in Oakland—we played in the church next door. I’ve played with him every time he’s come to town over the last four or five years.”
Wiley spoke of the pleasure of “just hanging out” with Baraka, mentioning his humor and recalling in particular Baraka telling him, as they passed a display of his books, about getting a van and distributing remainders of his books to children in Harlem in the late ‘60s, “like the vans that drive through, selling them ice cream, candy, soda—but he was giving them something nourishing for the mind.”
Wiley extolled Baraka: “Such a character in general, such an intellect—and so soulful.”
Wiley continues to play around the Bay Area with singer Faye Carol, with Marcus Shelby’s jazz ensemble and with vocalist LaVay Smith. He’s worked with Jacinta Blanch’s Liberation Dance Theatre.
His ongoing work, The Angola Project, named after the Louisiana State Penitentiary plantation, where inmates are encouraged to sing, and older styles of vocals have been preserved, continues as well. A new CD—The Angola Project’s second—12 Gates to the City, will be released in February. The title track is a suite Wiley started writing on his first visit there, two years ago.
On that visit, Wiley also heard a prisoner, “there since around 1970,” John Taylor, who had withdrawn from the prison administration-sponsored musical programs six years before, feeling the prisoners were being exploited, sing for the first time in six years.
“He opened his mouth and it was glorious,” Wiley recalled, “the voice of an angel, in a maximum security prison! He sang for my friend Daniel Atkinson, who had been studying the songs, and me. The song was ‘Thank You For One More Day.’ I think it’s Faye Carol’s favorite of the Angola Project songs.”
Wiley reflected on “the music changing” between the first Angola Project CD and 12 Keys.
“On the first album, I was an outsider looking in, having listened just to old recordings from the prison, like Alan Lomax’s, and reading about the place,” he said. “It’s amazing this understanding still exists in new millenium America—because it was considered rehabilitation. Rehabilitation? Picking cotton in 100 degree weather? The prisoners preserved the 1930s-40s a cappela gospel quartet vocal tradition. Those cats create music with a transcendent spirituality, with the will for the spirit to overcome adversity, even in such a dire, desperate situation. It had to be passed on in prison, under a criminal justice system that’s not dealing with poverty.”