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The Arkivists

Photo by Adam Beinash

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.

 

“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.”

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>

 

Despite all the university’s resources, the motto for historical archivists like Gordon Theil, a friendly, bespectacled man with a bushy gray beard who heads UCLA’s music and arts libraries, might be “Never do something that can’t be undone.” Theil’s job of shepherding the Tapscott archives is essentially to facilitate their transfer and then leave them alone. Handling such artifacts is, in his words, “like carrying porcelain through a minefield.” His assistant, a soft-spoken music technician named Timothy Edwards, oversees audio processing in the basement of Schoenberg Hall. He uses a bare-bones version of the editing software Pro Tools to make a direct transfer that retains the pops, hisses and clicks that are so important to scholars, who view them as venerable flaws in fine leather. When Edwards converts the analog to digital, it is with angel’s gloves. “One play,” he says, “may be your only play.”

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>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.”

The copying work is as tedious as it sounds. Sharps takes a moment to practice runs on his soprano sax amid the ephemera still left in Tapscott’s garage, where the Phantom rehearsed the Ark every Saturday afternoon with the door flung open and the orchestra spilling out onto the driveway. The point, he says, is making sure the band has something to pass on as well as feed off. “These young guys are the next generation who are gonna take over; we gotta have their energy. The reason no one’s been playing the old pieces is because they’ve been in there.” He points over to an olive-drab World War II–surplus file cabinet filched from a friend’s workplace. “See, everything’s connected: Without the archives you can’t have a band, and without a band you can’t have an organization, and without an organization the band has no support. We have to take it upon ourselves to invest in ourselves, in order to not lose everything we have.”

The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, conducted by Michael Session, plays the World Stage on Sunday, April 30, at 3 p.m. Steven Isoardi reads from The Dark Tree at Eso Won Books, 3655 S. La Brea Ave., on Saturday, April 15, at 5 p.m.


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