Howard Wiley: To Angola and Back

Bay area saxophonist pays musical tribute to men imprisoned at Louisiana prison

Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely sources. It took a West Coast ethnomusicologist with a passion for his subject to bring Bay area saxophonist Howard Wiley closer not only to the Southern roots of his own family, but to the difficult conditions of the incarcerated men at Angola prison in Louisiana. Wiley and his group, The Angola Project, recently released 12 Gates to the City, an album dedicated to the legendary Louisiana prison and its inmates. The CD which features music by Wiley’s “soul chamber ensemble,” as he calls it, pays tribute to those men doing time at that Louisiana State penitentiary. This album was his second about Angola and incorporates even more of the music and ideas of the men imprisoned there.

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Howard Wiley
By Daniel Atkinson
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Howard Wiley's The Angola Project album cover
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Howard Wiley
By Daniel Atkinson

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Coming into the project, the 31-year-old Wiley had no particular affinity for the prison or its residents. “My friend and partner on this project is Daniel Atkinson, who’s a big jazzhead and worked for this label in San Francisco called Monarch Records,” explained Wiley. “He said to me, ‘You got to check out these records from this label out of El Cerrito, Arhoolie Records.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, “It’s these prison spirituals.’ And I went, ‘Naaah, I’m sorry.’ If he had come to me with a bootleg Trane or Monk, it would have been different. But I was very hesitant at first. You just hear ‘prison’ and ‘music’ and you don’t know really what to think.”

But sometimes a subject or a theme has a way of coming back to an artist. So it was with Wiley and Angola. “He [Atkinson] moved to Seattle and I went to visit him one time,” said Wiley. “He picked me up from the airport and put on this tune called ‘Rise and Fly.’” Immediately, Wiley was hooked, on the music and its power. “It was mesmerizing. I was, like, wow. It was in time, it was out of time. There was so much improvisation. This is some crazy jazzy bluesy sounding stuff and folk music too. It was indescribable, it had so many elements that I really liked and identified with. It reminded me of this song that all the deacons in church used to sing when I was a kid at the opening of every church service.”

And so the project and the work began. “I got all the Angola records [recordings from that prison]. Daniel got his PhD in Ethnomusicology and he did it on Angola and what was going on down there musically. He brought me this recording from a group called Pure Heart Messenger and the first tune was called ‘Twelve Gates to the City.’ That was it for me. I started to internalize all the Lomax recordings, as well as what was going on at the prison. I thought, ‘I have to put some sort of project together in tribute to this great music that’s influenced me.’ I started doing as much research as I could. I found out that a lot of what first attracted me to it was that it was very similar to the music I heard growing up in church in so many ways.”

The first recording The Angola Project came out in 2007. Wiley said that the music on that first album clearly reflected his own impassioned, yet distant, perspective on things in Angola. “It was like from an outsider looking in. That’s why the album is so dark. I did a lot of research about Angola and found out that it’s a prison that was a slave plantation that just transferred over to prison plantation. There are cats out there picking cotton. I’m from California. I was born in Berkeley. Until my visit to Angola, I’d never even seen cotton unless it was on some Fruit of Looms!”

Nonetheless, Wiley was pleasantly surprised that the response to the first album was much like his own when he first started learning about the conditions at Angola. “They were intrigued. They were enlightened. But they really found a joy in the music that was there. It’s like a time capsule. No information is let in. You have all these musicians, a lot of them from New Orleans, in this prison. You come to find out that, with the circumstances they’re in, just being poor and uneducated, the options are often just crime or the Army. There’s a lot of people in the ‘wrong place, wrong time.’”

Ironically, the learning process was only beginning for this well-educated young jazz musician. “I found out about this aspect of our society that I didn’t know about. And then on top of all this brutal reality, you have this beautiful music, much of it from a lot of the slave culture that was still intact. I started reading this book called The Sounds of Slavery which talked about plantation songs and about how each plantation had their songs and themes. And how the slaves worked on the docks and were encouraged to sing to help productivity, the same reason the slaves sing. And how these cats passed messages on to each other through song. The same way the Negro spirituals got passed on. Songs like ‘This little light of mine/is gonna shine’ told slaves to look for the houses with the lights on. That was a part of the Underground Railroad. ‘Wade in the water, walk on the edge of water’ so the dogs can’t pick up your scent, so you don’t leave a trail. All these very creative elements that I know and see in jazz all the time were extremely prevalent in the music in these spirituals and the music that was going on in Angola.”

Listening to recordings is one thing. Experiencing the people, place and music is another. With the help of a grant from Meet the Composer organization, Wiley took the next step in his own musical and socio-political development. “Daniel and I went down in August 2007 to visit the prison. It was a trip. I had just come off a year-long tour with Lauryn Hill. And this trip to the prison was one of the most mesmerizing amazing experiences I’ve ever had.”

Wiley saw firsthand that music indeed could serve a higher power. “Man, just the love and the joy that the music has and the purpose that music serves. We’ve been taught that music is just to entertain, but truly it soothes the soul and nourishes the spirit. What these guys shared with us was so amazing and so nourishing. I had to write a couple of tunes just in tribute to my experiences there. There’s a song called ‘John Taylor’ about this prisoner who was wrongfully incarcerated in the ‘70s. He was a singer before he went to prison. He’s in the process of being let out now.”

It would seem to even a casual listener that the first album is about alienation and anger, while the second is about hope and redemption. “That’s very true. All the negative feelings that I felt were my interpretations of, say, me going down Highway 61 seeing old plantations being turned into bed and breakfasts. Thinking about the overwhelmingly traumatic situation it was and is for prisoners going to Angola. As far as the eye can see, there’s prison. There are no gates. Just one way in and one way out.”

Yet somehow the spirit of music prevails, and not just in conservatories and concert halls. “When I got there, I saw the joy from music that these cats had and the way they sang and the way they made you feel when they sang. Their joy in sharing this music. It’s what music is about, when somebody who really loves music shares it with you. We all have somebody who first hipped us to jazz; for me, there’s this cat I call the Professor. And that’s the impression that they left on me, musically. These [prisoners] are musicians who are trained in the folk tradition. I’m a jazz musician and we gotta know a whole bunch of scales just to be able to play. But these cats were trained in a different way and still had that joy and love. And I felt it.”

Inspiration struck Wiley quickly and intensely. “I wrote mostly in the hotel room, just based on the impression they made on me. We’d go back to the room and listen to the music and say, ‘Oh God, this is amazing. Did you hear that?’ Just to see how well trained they are. The next day, the alto would sing tenor and the tenor would sing alto, with all the parts and interweave it. It’s like with the Jazz at Lincoln Center if Walter [Blanding, Jr.] started playing the bari part and Sherman [Irby] started playing the tenor part spontaneously. There’s this transcendent spirituality that transcends time and space. When we listen to Coltrane and Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, no matter who you are or where you are, you love it and you feel it. That’s what all my favorite jazz musicians do to me. That’s what these cats did. That’s the overwhelming feeling that they left me with.”

Unfortunately, none of the current Angola prisoners are heard on the album because of legal and logistic issues. However, Wiley was able to involve a former Angola prisoner, Robert King, one of the famous Angola Three, whom Wiley met at a symposium at San Francisco State about prisons. “We performed and Angela Davis spoke. Robert King spoke and it was one of the most poignant speeches I’ve ever heard about us as Americans and the 13th Amendment. He didn’t have that chip on his shoulder about being wrongfully incarcerated for 30 years in solitary confinement. He just told the facts. And we were able to use his voice on one of the recordings. It’s called ‘New Angola, My God.’”

Wiley stressed that he would have liked to feature some of the prisoners he met at Angola and their music, but it simply wasn’t possible. “It’s very complicated down there. We didn’t want to do anything that would negatively affect the prisoners there. Because on the first trip, Daniel recorded them and tried to send them back recordings that they weren’t able to receive. It’s a very sticky political situation, at Angola in particular with Warden Cain. In fact, Daniel is now banned from the prison.”

For Wiley and Atkinson, access was limited as was the music itself, strangely enough. “We were only allowed access to the trusties, because those prisoners who they deem the best and they can only sing gospel music. The only music that you can sing or perform is gospel or Christian music. All the trusties are Christian. You have to be.”

Interestingly, one of the songs is dedicated to one of the guards, whom Wiley found to be an oasis of reason in an unreasonable place. “Captain Donna Demoss was just a generally nice person with a true and genuine compassion for the prisoners. She just made our visit there as nice as could be. She allowed us access and allowed us to converse with these guys. She would observe with a watchful eye, but not with a demeaning or judgmental eye.”

Wiley learned very quickly that music is a big part of the prisoners’ life in Angola. This is Louisiana, after all, where music is in the DNA of nearly all residents, no matter their circumstance. “They rehearse two times a week. We were allowed access to three ensembles that rehearsed. We only wanted to see the a cappella groups there, because that was the music that most inspired me from when Daniel first went down for a visit. The bands were OK, but it’s kind of hard to get good when you can only practice a couple of times per week for hours. Singing you can do any time. There was a guy there named Sidney DeLoach who was fabulous.”

The prisoners also get some input from the outside, thanks to the largesse of many of the great New Orleans musicians. Harry Connick, Jr, one of the most underrated social activists in the jazz world, has made numerous appearances at the prison. As the original slaveholders found out, you can remove men from their homes and family but you cannot remove them from music. “In Louisiana, music is such a part of the culture. My grandmother is from Louisiana and the songs that she sang in her church reminded me of the things they did in Angola. When I heard them, I realized that’s why they were so familiar – ‘this is what Granny used to sing…this was the way Big Momma approached it.’

Lest a reader can the wrong impression from Wiley’s description of his inspiration, the music on the new album incorporates that gospel and spiritual vocal music into the mix, but the end result is much more of a jazz suite. A lot of vocalization was retained, but not at all in the conventional gospel style. “Those vocalizations are what were the most moving to me, like when I used to hear my grandmother hum spirituals. That’s why none of them are singing lyrics.”

It’s true. The vocals sound like some sort of hybrid of different languages, sometimes Asian, sometimes African, sometimes European, sometimes alien even. “Loren has this made-up scat singing thing that almost sounded German. The funny thing is that he’s a theoretical physicist. He’s on Steve Coleman’s album. The other singers were very familiar with the church singing style. Like when my grandmother would sing [Wiley humms line much like a Coltrane melody]. I always hear notes and rhythms that way. I love when Stevie hums, or when Donnie Hathaway hums. That’s a big part of it.”

The record also features an interesting mix of sounds with brass bands and strings, which he calls a soul chamber orchestra. “The makeup of the band is like a true chamber ensemble. That’s what I wanted to hear, but soulful. I had to put such a weird ensemble together to try and create that energy and that feeling because there’s so much going on in that music, when you hear those field recordings of Alan Lomax and Harry Oster. It was like when I was listening to Newk’s Time, with Sonny Rollins playing ‘Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” I heard everything in there and it was just saxophone and drums. You can hear an entire rhythm section come out of his horn. I had to put such an interesting group of musicians together to try and recreate that sound and energy.”

For being a well-composed suite, the music has a free-wheeling feel to it. Wiley confirmed that the loose yet composed feel was entirely intentional. “Everything I like has that feeling: that open spirit. When you’re feeling good and you’re walking down 125th and you’re feeling good. That’s the feeling I want to convey to the listener.

But the arrangements and musical approach were about more just getting across that buoyant feeling. “Another thing I was trying to do maybe because I’m an instrumentalist is that we always hear vocal, vocal in front. I wanted to put the vocalists as part of the ensemble. So much of the music that we hear, everything is built around the singer and around the voice. I wanted the voice to be a member of the ensemble. I wanted the spoken word to be accompanying the saxophone solo. I wanted the rap to be part of the ensemble. Not he’s rapping over us, like we’re playing some vamp and we’re in support of the vocalist. No, we’re an ensemble and we have an ensemble sound. The same way that Duke Ellington had, though in no way shape or form am I comparing myself to Duke Ellington. But the way he approached his group and the same way Fletcher Henderson approached having an ensemble sound. And the way that James Cleveland tried to create the sound of a choir. That’s what I’m trying to recreate. All of it sounds so loose and freewheeling. Like when you hear Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, he’s on chorus 8,000 of ‘Impressions’ but time is going nowhere because it’s a tight unit. It’s so loose and so free. It’s like when you see ballet dancers—it’s very precise what they’re doing, but they make it look easy. You think, I can go and do that. But you can’t. That’s the feeling I get. Plus, I really hate super sterile precise schoolboy jazz!”

Given what he’s seen and heard and experienced, being sterile and precise would be the least of his problems. In fact, you might imagine that Wiley has had his fill with prisons and their problems, but he said that it’s not something he can just put aside for the next project. “It is a trip, no question. A lot of prison rights activists have approached us. I’ve given talks in junior high schools and high schools and juvenile halls, just talking about the music and Angola and what exists. All these cats I met and talked to there, it was like one mistake or one bad decision, like they got drunk and got in a fight. Or ‘I got high and me and my friend stole a car and now I’m in jail.’ As much as I can, I try to reach back and do what I can.”

People seem to be calling for stricter or longer sentencing these days. Yet we have more and more prisons filled with young men (and women). Given Wiley’s experience on the inside, so to speak, we have to wonder what insights he now has about the systemic problems in our judicial and penal system and the possible solutions. “I see education as the key to all of it. Having access to music and literary arts and so many other activities that school systems have cut and that aren’t available. Through education, I believe most of all are societal woes and problems be solved. That, and building up a community as opposed to just making money.”

Given the thematic depth of this album and its predecessor, is it hard for Wiley to simply do a regular jazz album, not dedicated to this higher issue? He explained that that the issue will always stay with him. “I’ve had a lot of time to internalize the information that I’ve gathered over the years, from Angola and so on. Over the last few years, I’ve met a lot of people I normally wouldn’t meet and normally wouldn’t have come into contact with. And all of that informs the music and who I am. All great composers and great musicians always talk about the people in their lives who influenced them. I believe this experience has profoundly changed me in such a wonderful way and opened my eyes to really get in touch with my own humanity and others’ humanity. It’s helped me to be less judgmental. I think when I do apply all this knowledge to some tunes or whatever vocabulary I choose to record next, it will still have that feeling. The same thing that Mahalia Jackson brought when she was singing with Duke Ellington. She wasn’t necessarily singing spirituals or Thomas A. Dorsey tunes.”

For Wiley, it’s pretty simple. The music is about the feeling, and most importantly, the people. “I just really love beautiful music. When I put on ‘Stardust’ it’s that feeling that you get, that intangible something. Like that something Big Momma puts into her collard greens. I always say, ‘Big Momma, you must have put your foot in here to season it because it’s bad!’ And that sweet potato pie. It’s the cinnamon. That’s the seasoning.”

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