Crate Digging With Bay Area Jazz Saxophonist Howard Wiley

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a Black man in a purple jacket holds up a copy of a James Cleveland record while standing in a record store with shelves overflowing with vinyl
Howard Wiley holds up a copy of James Cleveland's 'Live at Carnegie Hall' LP while shopping at Down Home Record Store in El Cerrito on April 7. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Howard Wiley is a record fanatic. Or, as Wiley puts it, “a bona fide jazz fanatic junkie.” He’s also an accomplished jazz musician who’s played tenor saxophone with a who’s-who of greats, including trumpeter Clark Terry, pianist Jason Moran and hip-hop icon Lauryn Hill, in addition to his regular gigs around the Bay. He’s released several albums since 1995, including the acclaimed The Angola Project, and he’s got new music on the way this year (plus a soon-to-be-announced role as a resident artistic director at SFJAZZ, starting in 2024).

I spoke to Wiley earlier this year for a story about his pal and fellow jazz musician Ambrose Akinmusire. Over the course of the conversation, I learned about Wiley’s massive record collection and his passion for crate digging. So as Record Store Day approaches — an annual day designated to celebrate independent record stores, landing this year on April 22 — I asked Wiley to take me to some of his favorite local record shops and share his tips for finding classic records to start, or grow, one’s collection.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KQED Arts: Before we dig into the crates, tell us about your record collection.


Howard Wiley: I have about 10,000 records — about 7,000 collected on my own and 3,000 inherited from my mentor. Serious focus on the straight-ahead jazz. So I got all your favorite artists: all the Erroll Garner, all the Sarah Vaughan, all the Duke Ellington, all the Count Basie, all the Dexter Gordon, all the Charlie Parker, all the Miles Davis stuff. I have that and the artists who perform with them. Johnny Hodges played with Duke Ellington, so I got all the Johnny Hodges records. And all of the offshoots, the big bands.

I try to do regional stuff, [and] I like tenor [saxophone] players because I play tenor. I just love the music. I also have an incredibly large classical music collection. So all your major composers, all the major periods — not too much 20th century, though. Also got a lot of gospel. I’m working on gospel from the golden era [from the 1940s to 1950s], and, say, 1960 to 1990.

How do you approach digging for records? Do you have advice about what’s worth spending money on?

Streaming has a lot of the popular stuff. They got a lot of the hits and the top artists: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. So if you see an original copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out…they printed millions of those. Getting a reissue on one of those throughout the years is just as good. I’m looking for off-the-beaten-path type stuff. Those seminal jazz artists that we don’t tend to talk about. So, I’ll look for a Wynton Kelly album. I’m gonna look for some Red Garland on Prestige [Records]. I’ll look for some Shirley Scott.

a bin of records with a record by jazz artist J.J. Johnson called 'First Place' on top
The kind of record Wiley geeks out on — a Columbia Records “six-eye” original of ‘First Place’ by J.J. Johnson, seen at Noise Records in San Francisco on April 7. ‘J.J. was one of the foremost innovators of jazz trombone coming out of the bebop era,’ says Wiley. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

How do you scope a quality record?

You can always tell by the thickness of the record. Once the ’80s hit, the vinyl got thinner. And just got thinner and thinner each decade.

You can also tell when you don’t have the big parent companies listed. If you’re looking for a good album – and it’s an old album – you won’t see any mention of parent companies. For example, if it’s a Verve album and it says Polygram on it, or Universal, you know that’s a reissue. If you see a Blue Note record and it says EMI on it, that’s a reissue. You want to look for the records where it’s just that [original] company.

Also, with Columbia Records — especially during their heyday in the Miles Davis Kind of Blue period — you look at the record and you’ll see the Columbia logo, which is like an eye, and you’ll see three on each side of the hole. That means it’s an original. Then in the next phase, it was two eyes, one on each side of the hole. So if you get a copy of Kind of Blue and it has a red label that says “Columbia Records” and no logos on either side of the hole, that means it’s a reissue that happened around the ’70s and later. I think they brought back the “six-eye” now, but those classic period albums all have six eyes. So if you see a Patti Bown record and it’s a “six-eye”? Absolutely. That’s a great find.

two vinyl records from Columbia, with red labels, seen out of their sleeves
An example of an original Columbia “six-eye” record (left) and “two-eye” record. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

What do you consider a reasonable price point for an average record — not a rare, “holy grail” type record?

You can find cool, good, original press records for $4 and $5. So you don’t have to necessarily break the bank and spend $20 and $30, like new records cost now. [At $4 or $5] you can have some incredibly good music, incredibly well recorded. And with somebody like James Cleveland, a lot of the time it’s live. So you get that thang, you know. And I grew up in church and I love and I miss and need that thang. It’s nice to find that.

Howard Wiley’s Recommended Record Shops

If you want to trace Howard Wiley’s record-shopping steps, here are his top three stops in the Bay Area, with his “liner notes” on what he loves about them:


3427 Balboa St., San Francisco

a man looks through vinyl records in a record store while an employee sits behind the desk
Howard Wiley shopping, while Sara Alison Johnson works, at Noise in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood on April 7. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Wiley: I really love Noise. One, it’s family-owned and the owner is a saxophone player, as well. Not saying that musicians know more about records, but he just has a hunger for the music that is different. He wants to understand and he has an understanding of it. And he takes that same level of detail and study to the record store. And it’s still very organic. He runs it with his mother and his sister, and they really love music.

There’s a lot of hipster used record stores and things that have been popping up, and it’s different coming from a place where somebody thinks it’s cool versus somebody who really loves music. And that’s what I get from Noise. And [the owner] Danny always has his ear to the ground for very special stuff, very special periods. And it goes across genres, too. I’m a big jazz head, big blues head, but they have all the rock and a lot of the pop stuff. It is very eclectic and very informed.

Down Home Music Store

10341 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito

a man in a purple hoodie flips through records in a record store
Howard Wiley flips through records at Down Home Record Store in El Cerrito on April 7. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Wiley: At Down Home, I always hit the jazz section first, then I hit up the roots stuff. I try to see what the ethnomusicologists have done. I look for the Arhoolie things since this store was originally opened by Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz. I look for records and CDs that are from small or boutique presses — stuff that’s hard to find and that you only find in indie spots. They’ve got the Japanese 45s, and Japanese pressings are detailed to the max. Best sound quality.

This place has a lot of great CDs and video recordings, too. TV performances, live performances, stuff that you won’t find on YouTube – you find those gems here. I got a bunch of Thelonious Monk and Roots Americana videos here. A lot of regional stuff – how the music sounded in the Pacific Northwest in the ’30s during their first great migration. What it sounded like in Mississippi churches.

Groove Yard

5555 Claremont Ave, Oakland

an older white man stands behind the counter in a cluttered record shop, laughing as he talks with a younger Black man in a purple hoodie and hat on the other side of the counter
Groove Yard owner Rick Ballard (left) and Wiley talk records at Groove Yard in Oakland on April 7. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Wiley: The “holy trinity” of record stores in the East Bay used to be this place called Berigan’s, a place called DBA Brown and the Groove Yard. Unfortunately, Berigan’s and DBA Brown are no longer with us, and the Groove Yard is the last of that. It’s a super, super great record shop. I would go to the Groove Yard as a teenager and just hang out and listen to all the record collectors talk about labels and producers, and brag about their collections.

I learned not only about the records, but about the music and the culture. That’s what I get from the Groove Yard. Plus [owner] Rick Ballard is one of these dudes who’s been in the game so long as a record store owner, as a record importer and as somebody who has a place that draws all the avid collectors. So you’ll see Rick talk about stuff you don’t ever hear anybody talk about, like Everest Records. So this place is super special — a great record store run by somebody who is cool and informative. It has a special place in my heart.