Those who knew and loved Horace Elva Tapscott, the late jazz bandleader, composer and social activist from Leimert Park, invariably refer to him as “the phantom” or “the ghost.” Even when he was forthcoming, his timing was mysterious. “After he had his seizure, I remember him sitting in his room composing,” recalls music historian and Tapscott biographer Steven Isoardi. “He had his score in front of him, and he just casually looked up and said, ‘By the way, I’m gonna die soon.’ I was just stunned, I didn’t know what to say. But that was Horace.”
But after cancer claimed Tapscott in 1999, neither Isoardi nor Michael Dett Wilcots, Tapscott’s son-in-law, was prepared for what they found buried in the pianist’s backyard. Stuffed into every crevice of a dusty two-car garage near Crenshaw and Vernon was a disorganized treasure trove of lost music from Tapscott and his ever-mutating army of musicians dubbed the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, one of the most remarkable cultural and musical insurgencies Los Angeles has ever produced — and one of its least documented. The music represented a man who in 1961 walked away from Lionel Hampton’s band to channel his furiously idiosyncratic and entirely personal style of jazz back into his own community. “The Ark were so underground, you literally could fit in a file folder all the things that have been written about it,” says Isoardi, whose bid to change this has arrived with University of California Press’ publication of The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles, an epic history of the Ark and its nonprofit arts umbrella, the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA). “South-Central is big and sprawling — you’re talking about a 46-square-mile area; that’s larger than most cities. They buried themselves within their community, which was like burying yourself within a big city. Plus, they existed during a very militant time. Not many whites ventured down there. This was their world.”
The maestro misterioso’s awareness that he and the Ark were only rumors to the outside world motivated him as an archivist. “Horace was adamant about documenting everything,” says Wilcots. “I mean, he had [Ark co-founder and pianist] Linda Hill keep volumes of notebooks of the things that were going on before, during and after the concerts.” Anyone who caught Tapscott live in his later years at the Jazz Bakery or a Watts Towers festival might have spotted a tape recorder beneath his piano bench. Immediately after a gig, the towering, spindly bandleader would haul the entire band back to the house to audit the live performance while Wilcots transferred it from a (usually donated) portable audio unit. “Then he’d put the cassettes in his car and drive around, mostly nights, listening to see if he needed to rearrange something or get a different sound,” says Wilcots. “He stayed that focused on the music, day and night.”
Wilcots, an Iowa-born artist and photographer who met Tapscott in 1969, the year the indie label Flying Dutchman released Tapscott’s debut, The Giant Is Awakened, learned the pains of preservation after he was anointed UGMAA’s official documentarian. As impressive as it was to behold, the Ark was at heart a guerrilla street band — a nightmare to capture on tape. Like liquid mercury, it split and re-formed from venue to venue, as small as an octet or as big as 30 people (and that’s not counting the choir). It even moved around onstage: a grinning Tapscott, overtaken by the music, erupting from behind his piano to taunt the raging band with windmilling arms; the musicians, their ranks swelled by chanting poets, dashiki-clad dancers and excited children, reveling around the stage and into the crowd. “It even got to the point where after Horace got me and other guys doing the engineering, this guy over there starts soloin’ and Horace is still grabbing the mike and running across the stage to raise it to the instrument,” chuckles Wilcots, shaking his head. “A lotta sweat I lost during those things. At the end, I felt all gritty, like I’d been working in dirt.”
Then there was the stuff that was lost: the sheet music stolen right off Tapscott’s piano during a band break at the 1995 Moers Jazz Festival in Germany; the tapes of a rare Ark studio session destroyed in a 1971 fire at a Hollywood studio; master tapes that disappeared with the owner of another studio in Pomona. “It was heartbreaking,” says Wilcots. “After Giant, Horace was skeptical of doing anything with producers — especially white producers. Black producers weren’t interested in our style of music. R&B and rock & roll was the thing.”
Tapscott and UGMAA settled for nothing less than making their art a part of their community’s everyday life, and they built their organization from the grass roots up with whatever they had at their disposal: finding a building in escrow and prodding the owner for nine months’ free rent for office space; making concert brochures from an old printing press donated by a local pastor; forming collaborations with various community organizations to procure a part-time administrative staff at half price. UGMAA emerged during a time of black nationalism (Tapscott collaborated with Black Panther Elaine Brown on a pair of albums) and cultural self-creation that they — along with the Watts Writers Workshop and the Mafundi Institute — helped spark.