By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The first white man he remembers was a cop holding a gun to his mother's head. His family moved to L.A. when his stepfather found work in San Pedro's wartime shipyards. His public instrument was originally trombone, because if the neighborhood kids saw him playing the "sissy" piano, they'd whomp his head. (The keyboard took over exclusively when, as an adult, he injured his mouth in a car crash.) As a teenager, he spotted Cecilia Payne in the audience from the stage of a junior high school auditorium; they married in 1952 and have raised nine children. After the renowned Jefferson High School teacher Samuel Browne trained him, Tapscott refused a Juilliard education, figuring he could learn more about the necessity of being better than white competitors from the generous players who hung out at the black L.A. Musicians Union. He played with Gerald Wilson in 1950, began composing in the '50s while in the Air Force, toured with Lionel Hampton as the '60s dawned.
And that's about when he decided he loved his Los Angeles community enough to stay there, whatever that might mean for his career. He formed both the Arkestra and UGMAA (originally Underground Musicians and Artists Association, later reconstructed as Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension) in the early '60s; counseled youths with Sonny Criss in the '70s; played "public schools, churches, recreation centers, hospitals, old-age homes -- that's where the heart of the community is, and it's where the music needs to be." He has also embarked on brief tours of Europe, Japan, Australia and other destinations, where his reception has always been enthusiastic.
Tapscott was struck by a cerebral aneurysm in 1978 and nearly died on the operating table. He traveled down the fabled beam of white light, exchanged nods with the dearly departed, and decided he still had work to do in the community, which he feels should be separate and self-sufficient: "You don't like us? Slick. We're over here." Says his wife, Cecilia, "The most outstanding thing about Horace is his giving. Whatever he has in his pocket, he will give. We have come to battle over it, now and then."
I WENT TO TAPSCOTT'S HOUSE IN 1989 TO INTERview him. He opened the door and directed me to a spot on the front lawn, under a spreading peach tree. We stood and talked, no chairs. I thought this strange at the time. "He just likes the outdoors," his wife explains now, but I also think there was something he wanted to show me. As he rapped, every few minutes somebody would drive or walk by, and honk or wave to Tapscott. He didn't bother asking me how often that happened on my street.
Today, passersby can't wave to him anymore. But as he lies in his bed, they still tap out gentle auto-horn greetings several times an hour. One guy, a walker, rings a little bell going by. Out in the yard, in the middle of winter, the peach tree is in full bloom.
A benefit for Horace Tapscott will be held at Washington High School Auditorium, 10860 Denker Ave., Sunday, February 28, from 2 to 7 p.m. See Other Jazz Events in Calendar.