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But what made Jazz Collection No. 237 special — aside from being the largest body of work by a Los Angeles artist in the UCLA Music Library Special Collections — was that its contents were largely unheard. Not only that, the Tapscott tapes captured such Ark grads as Arthur Blythe, Stanley Crouch, Azar Lawrence, Roberto Miranda, Butch and Wilber Morris, David Murray, Michael Session, Sonship Theus and Jimmy Woods in the infancy of their distinguished careers. Fittingly, Isoardi’s publisher decided that a CD should accompany The Dark Tree, joining a recent vogue of book/music packages that include The Future Dictionary of America, Jazzwomen and The R. Crumb Handbook. But here is where Isoardi’s sleepless nights multiplied.
Tapscott never met a venue he didn’t like. The Ark played anywhere between 103rd Street and Central Avenue down to Long Beach Boulevard: churches, schools, old-age homes, community centers, hospitals, recital halls, city parks, prisons, asylums, on the back of a flatbed truck during the 1965 Watts riots. Every tape was a field recording. Isoardi’s problem was to find music that represented the Ark at the height of its powers — say, circa 1970, with Arthur Blythe, Azar Lawrence and the Morris brothers doing “The Dark Tree” or “The Giant Is Awakened” — and that was also remotely listenable. More often than not, the two didn’t match up. Take a 1979 recording of an Ark standard, “To the Great House,” at the Immanuel United Church of Christ, one of their favorite venues. “I just love it,” says Isoardi. “You can hear the floorboards moving, and these solos taking off on top. This is like a tsunami coming at you — it’s too overwhelming! The sound was bouncing all over the place, too much reverb — and Horace actually dug that! Unfortunately, I couldn’t include it because it was a copy of a copy of a cassette, and recorded on not-very-good equipment to begin with.”
Even when they got the chosen material back from the UCLA digital labs — where, mercifully, nothing dissolved, flaked or popped — Isoardi was still not satisfied. It is one thing, he maintains, to listen to recordings as a student or researcher, but quite another as a consumer. Ironically, the answer to the sound-quality question came not59><58from the archives but from Tapscott himself, who had permitted his fans — mainly other musicians and jazz writers — to tape his shows. When Isoardi sent the selections over to pianist/producer Wayne Peet’s studio in Mar Vista, Peet lightly dusted them up with digital software. As a bonus, he rounded them out with some goodies of his own: crystalline digital multitracks drawn from a 1995 Catalinas Bar & Grill performance by Tapscott’s octet with cornetist Bobby Bradford and singer Dwight Trible. (The recordings were bankrolled by Don Snowden, who wrote some of the first articles on Tapscott and the Ark for the <i>L.A. Times in the late ’70s and is searching for a label to issue the complete concert.)
Isoardi nearly swooned. “Oh my god, Dwight singing ‘Motherless Child’ and ‘Little Africa,’?” he rhapsodizes. “There were versions of songs that Horace never put out but always wanted to — the masters of which are in the archive.” He then plays me Peet’s remastered version of Tapscott’s “Eternal Egypt” suite from the archives: No longer sounding like it was recorded in a bathysphere, Tapscott’s piano begins a stabbing, percussive duel with the congas. It’s hypnotic, ballsy, insinuating; then the whispering woodwinds start flitting around a background roil of an approaching steamship as the rest of the Ark awakens like a sleeping colossus. Thirty years removed, it’s still a wonder and a terror to behold.
And it’s especially poignant considering that in the 1980s crack cocaine and gang conflict turned South-Central into a war zone. It’s an era that corresponds to the most heartbreaking section of The Dark Tree, as UGMAA’s funding and the Ark’s performance spaces dried up, and, as Isoardi puts it, “The connection to the next generation was lost.” To this day, UGMAA doesn’t have a base of operations, and only recently the Ark — whose members range in age from 15 to 70 — has begun to play live again after suspending rehearsals last fall. (Before then, the band’s current conductor, Michael Session, was still leading rehearsals in the garage of woodwind player Kafi Roberts.) Isoardi hopes The Dark Tree and its sidecar CD will spark enough interest in Tapscott’s music to facilitate the issuance of more pearls from the collection, such as the complete performances of Tapscott’s “Eternal Egypt” and “Ancestral Echoes” suites.
As for the Tapscott family and UGMAA, carrying on the great man’s work is an ongoing rescue mission that is still pieced and stitched together between family and day jobs; they’re still answering the marching orders that Papa issued from his bed as people passed through his house to pay their final respects. Jesse Sharps, who joined the Ark when he was still in high school, recently returned stateside to join Ark trumpeter Steve Smith in the next phase of the band’s musical legacy: reconstructing and digitally scanning nearly 400 different musical scores. “A member of the choir told me last week: ‘I saw a piece of paper with your name on it, Horace asking for certain people to do certain things,’?” says Sharps. “But I never saw it. No one ever mentioned it to me before that. I just knew what to do. I had to leave Germany. I had to pack up and quit working. I didn’t want to do that really . . . my life was kinda torn apart, but this is more important.”