A Home, Grown

You often hear about a musician who overcomes a hostile environment to achieve fame and fortune. You almost never hear about a musician who finds himself in a hostile environment, works to change it for himself and others, and achieves success -- on his own terms, not the world‘s.

The reason you don’t hear such stories is that they butt up hard against the interests of consumer culture, a structure that can‘t exist unless the majority agrees, actively or tacitly, that money is more important than people. And since that priority works against every human instinct, it’s necessary that nearly everything in mass media be geared toward persuading you that the world cannot be changed.

Which is why the autobiography of pianist-activist Horace Tapscott, Songs of the Unsung, reads like science fiction. What new worlds are these -- the one in Houston‘s Third Ward, where Tapscott was born, and the one he helped create in Los Angeles? Not worlds you’ll see on TV.

Page after page, Tapscott offhandedly knocks down stereotypes about African-American communities, like pines behind an eruption. Hardly the sinkhole of ignorance and squalor you‘d expect a ghetto to be, Tapscott’s Houston neighborhood circa 1940 as he portrays it was, thanks to the dominating influence of its churches, a place where people knew and helped each other. They were poor, but no one went hungry. Music was everywhere. And the schools, which tolerated no slacking, taught African-American history -- a subject Tapscott was surprised to find completely absent in the classrooms of L.A.

Once Tapscott had moved to Los Angeles in 1943 at age 9 and grown up here, Houston was the separatist model on which he wanted to build a community of his own. The two cities were similar in some ways. Though flush with wartime manufacturing, Southern California was as segregated as the South. Because of the thriving Central Avenue jazz and blues scene and a tightly knit black musicians‘ union, the climate was right for a young trombone and piano player like Tapscott; singer Etta James and many other future stars were close neighbors. As in Houston, the church (James’ inaugural venue) was important for both interpersonal and musical reasons.

But Tapscott had to adjust to the differences, which largely screamed ”race.“ When he was literally farmed out to Fresno to harvest cotton and grapes as his family‘s resources shrank with the postwar economy, the youth, admittedly ”prejudiced“ due to associating whites with Texas guns and nooses, found himself for the first time sharing classrooms with white kids -- and picking as many fights as bolls. When he returned to L.A. and embarked on a musical career, touring with Lionel Hampton and smoking gage with the likes of Louis Armstrong, his encounters with Jim Crow restaurants and studio-session hiring blackouts did nothing to make Caucasians seem like compañeros.

Tapscott reached a fork in the road, one path leading toward a jazzman’s standard destination, New York, and the other toward home and wholeness. He chose the latter. If the music of his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and his swelling, rolling piano solos owed little to Charlie Parker, the way he built relationships by playing in churches, schools and hospitals was equally unaffiliated with standard procedure back East. No national front-page headlines announced his death two years ago, but in Central L.A., thousands wept.

Tapscott was no stainless icon. One might want to justify his paranoia -- notions that the military deliberately manufactured junkies, for instance -- by pointing to the very real persecution he suffered, such as being shadowed by the FBI for his links to radicals Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. And he cavalierly excuses several out-of-wedlock paternities by citing the example of Houston, where he barely knew his own father, black men weren‘t expected to live long, and women inevitably headed the family (an institution he nevertheless revered). ”We drop our seed and that’s it“ doesn‘t quite cut it.

What did cut it was Tapscott’s generosity with his time, knowledge and music. This was not the Internet; he was there, in person, for everyone. ”We were where it was important to be,“ he says. A man you saw every day was a man you could trust.

Tapscott‘s conversational narrative, filled with stories about ”the cats“ and their ”out“ behavior, is fascinating. (Windman Eric Dolphy, appropriating the plum position in a hired housecleaning detail, cracks, ”Y’all the field niggers. I‘m the house nigger.“) But more valuable than the book’s entertainment quotient is its map of possibilities. Editor Steven Isoardi, who taped many Tapscott interviews over a period of years and was also a prime mover of the 1998 book Central Avenue Sounds, deserves flowers for this one.


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