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IN THE MIDDLE OF THE '70s, WHEN I MOVED TO
Los Angeles, the Empire was striking back. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were safely on ice. Abbie Hoffman was a fugitive. The take-drugs-and-tear-things-up Rolling Stones were being supplanted by the take-drugs-and-take-a-nap Eagles.
And I was not ready for my nap. A decade late, I was forced to seek heat in the most radical music ever made, accessible almost nowhere at the time except on record: the furious '60s improvisational group blowing led by artists such as Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and John Coltrane. So when I spotted a newspaper listing of Horace Tapscott's Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra at the Watts Jazz Festival, I banged my fists against the wall in delight.
That stage creaked under the weight of some 30 musicians. I mean, there were four bassists. The music heaved and swelled like an ocean before a storm, and the man at the piano stirring it up was a tall, skinny dude with an open face and intense eyes, who would now and again stand up, wave his mantislike arms and lash the Arkestra into a passion. It was music of the spirit, meant for people who had no power over the world. People like me, I thought. But no, not entirely; I had the education, and the approved skin tone -- the keys to the earthly kingdom. Regardless, I felt this music would not refuse me.
The Arkestra's Watts Festival exorcisms became a yearly ritual. I needed the group's power; I also looked forward to hair-raising solo testimonies from the likes of saxists Gary Bias and Charles Owens. And I've sought out many other encounters with Tapscott and his smaller bands. At Fifth Street Dick's, his old comrade Thurman Green blew depthful trombone on a relaxed, boozeless New Year's Eve. At Catalina's, Roberto Miranda tore pages of Iberian expression from his bass while Fritz Wise ticked off geometric percussive frameworks. At the Long Beach Day of Music the weekend Miles Davis died, Michael Session's tenor poured a torrent of begrieved dignity over "Milestones." And in some forgotten Westside basement room, Tapscott delivered his soul to an audience you could count on your fingers.
Maybe if I had experienced some of the other pianists who emerged from Houston's Third Ward -- including Tapscott's mother, Mary Lou Malone -- I would have spotted direct precedents for the way he plays. As it is, though hints of Monk or Garner influences may peek through, Tapscott seems unique. There's his surging, casual approach to rhythm. There's the way he tromps the sustain pedal to layer masses of harmonic information. And he turns to triple meters more than any other jazz composer. Whatever the mood -- joyful, wrathful, playful -- Tapscott's music pulls in two directions at once: feet in the dirt, eyes to the sky.
Considering Tapscott's 50-year public presence, it's been remarkably hard to hear that music. A peak of visibility occurred when Prestige released Sonny Criss' misleadingly titled Sonny's Dream (Birth of the New Cool), a 1968 suite of tunes written, arranged and conducted by Tapscott and swung by a 10-man all-star ensemble based in Los Angeles. Tapscott's 1969 The Giant Is Awakened (Flying Dutchman) introduced altoist Arthur Blythe's hardheaded blues bite to the world. Two volumes of The Dark Tree (Hat Art) show the great clarinetist John Carter, drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Cecil McBee and the pianist spitting sharpness like a nail gun. And it's a blessing that Arabesque recorded a couple of well-conceived sessions (Aiee! The Phantom and Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam) in recent years.
Valuable as these are, it's nearly perverse that the meat and bones of Tapscott's music -- his working groups, the Arkestra and his solo flights -- have been documented almost exclusively in 15 1978 to 1984 albums on the tiny Nimbus West label (5356 Oxbow, Las Vegas, NV 89119-2864). Nothing can touch the full-on spirit of a local Tapscott performance -- the smiles exchanged, the neighborhood feel. But these rarities provide a clue.
I WON'T TRY TO GET TOO DEEP INTO TAPSCOTT'S life; he did it far better than I ever could in last year's
superb L.A. oral-history book Central Avenue Sounds (University of California Press). But it's a rich story.
The first white man he remembers was a cop holding a gun to his mother's head. His family moved to L.A. when his stepfather found work in San Pedro's wartime shipyards. His public instrument was originally trombone, because if the neighborhood kids saw him playing the "sissy" piano, they'd whomp his head. (The keyboard took over exclusively when, as an adult, he injured his mouth in a car crash.) As a teenager, he spotted Cecilia Payne in the audience from the stage of a junior high school auditorium; they married in 1952 and have raised nine children. After the renowned Jefferson High School teacher Samuel Browne trained him, Tapscott refused a Juilliard education, figuring he could learn more about the necessity of being better than white competitors from the generous players who hung out at the black L.A. Musicians Union. He played with Gerald Wilson in 1950, began composing in the '50s while in the Air Force, toured with Lionel Hampton as the '60s dawned.
And that's about when he decided he loved his Los Angeles community enough to stay there, whatever that might mean for his career. He formed both the Arkestra and UGMAA (originally Underground Musicians and Artists Association, later reconstructed as Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension) in the early '60s; counseled youths with Sonny Criss in the '70s; played "public schools, churches, recreation centers, hospitals, old-age homes -- that's where the heart of the community is, and it's where the music needs to be." He has also embarked on brief tours of Europe, Japan, Australia and other destinations, where his reception has always been enthusiastic.
Tapscott was struck by a cerebral aneurysm in 1978 and nearly died on the operating table. He traveled down the fabled beam of white light, exchanged nods with the dearly departed, and decided he still had work to do in the community, which he feels should be separate and self-sufficient: "You don't like us? Slick. We're over here." Says his wife, Cecilia, "The most outstanding thing about Horace is his giving. Whatever he has in his pocket, he will give. We have come to battle over it, now and then."
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I WENT TO TAPSCOTT'S HOUSE IN 1989 TO INTERview him. He opened the door and directed me to a spot on the front lawn, under a spreading peach tree. We stood and talked, no chairs. I thought this strange at the time. "He just likes the outdoors," his wife explains now, but I also think there was something he wanted to show me. As he rapped, every few minutes somebody would drive or walk by, and honk or wave to Tapscott. He didn't bother asking me how often that happened on my street.
Today, passersby can't wave to him anymore. But as he lies in his bed, they still tap out gentle auto-horn greetings several times an hour. One guy, a walker, rings a little bell going by. Out in the yard, in the middle of winter, the peach tree is in full bloom.
A benefit for Horace Tapscott will be held at Washington High School Auditorium, 10860 Denker Ave., Sunday, February 28, from 2 to 7 p.m. See Other Jazz Events in Calendar.