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The Arkivists 

Unearthing the treasure of Horace Tapscott, musical phantom of South L.A.

Wednesday, Apr 5 2006

Page 2 of 4

“In 1965, after the riots, the renaissance starts happening,” says Isoardi. “There were so many artists and performers that there was no need to look anywhere else for talent. The ethos was that the role of an artist was to stay in the community and bring out the artistry in everyone, and by doing that you raise the level of a community and improve it.”

Part of the great Texas musical migration of the mid-20th century that gave Los Angeles the virtuoso likes of Ornette Coleman, Bobby Bradford and John Carter, Tapscott learned a valuable lesson after his family arrived here in 1943. “When I went to the integrated schools in California, black people disappeared from the history being taught,” he noted in his 2001 autobiography, Songs of the Unsung. “It wasn’t written in the regular public-school books but there were always manuscripts around that the teachers found and used.” Tapscott’s musical tutelage, though, carried a strong African-American cast, as such éminence grises as Buddy Collette, Percy McDavid, Gerald Wilson and Dr. Samuel Browne sternly and dutifully taught the rigors of self-expression to Tapscott’s generation, with one string attached: You must promise to pass this on.

It was preservation built from self-preservation. “This actually goes all the way back to West Africa; these guys thought of themselves as griots,” says Isoardi. Griots are the African elders who keep the entire history of their village in their heads, or, by extension, the old men Tapscott grew up with in segregated Houston’s Third Ward who could rattle off any Bible passage in an eyeblink. In turn, Tapscott passed this sacred responsibility along to his family and his collaborators: Ark reed man Jesse Sharps remembers stopping on his bicycle one day and collecting from the curbside the discarded sheet music of bandleader Buddy Harper, another beloved mentor who had just passed away. Tapscott’s granddaughter Raisha claims that last summer, while walking her infant niece, she rescued what she calls “about a million dollars’ worth of treasure” from a blue recycling bin: original Duke Ellington recordings on 7-inch reel-to-reels. “They were in mint condition,” she smiles radiantly. “I just loaded everything in the bottom of the stroller and brought it home.”

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Of course, the sheer volume of the material rescued from Tapscott’s garage meant it was drool time for any salt-worthy jazz archivist — like discovering the mainly unheard catalog of a composer who rivaled Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus in the sheer breadth of his musical vision. Save for a dozen or so albums released from the late 1970s onward by small labels such as Nimbus West, Hat Art and Arabesque, the Ark has stood four decades with little official documentation. (It never became a full touring band, playing its first European concert as late as 1995; Tapscott didn’t receive a significant New York booking until 1991, when he played the Village Vanguard.) What’s more, Tapscott’s underground status had consigned most of his recorded music to decades of Southern California heat, cold and dampness. “The reel-to-reels were the main problem. I picked some of them up, and the tape would drip off onto the floor like it was liquid,” says Wilcots. “There was a sense of emergency about dealing with the stuff. It was [Horace’s] contribution to not just Los Angeles but to the world. You don’t let 40 years be in vain.”

Isoardi says he could barely sleep during the year it took for the Tapscott family to find a more permanent and protective home for what could be salvaged. They did, in excelsis:the Southern Regional Library Facility at UCLA, a Cold War–style complex entrenched three stories into the hillside near the corner of Montana and Veteran. The SRLF is one of the least accessible buildings on campus, and consequently one of the more mysterious. A special pass is required for entry, and even then one cannot engage the stacks directly. Conceived by architect Franklin Israel, who also designed buildings for the Shah of Iran, SRLF was completed in 1987 at a cost of $30 million to withstand 500 years or a nuclear attack. Its 102,839 square feet of humming, temperature-controlled archive space is where the university stores its most valuable collections. The facility boasts an innovative storage system: The interconnected shelves are not attached58><57to the walls of the building — essentially, they support each other. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, only two acid-proof containers fell to the floor.

  • Unearthing the treasure of Horace Tapscott, musical phantom of South L.A.

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