When she talks, Barbara McCullough zigs and zags in the most wonderful way.
“You have to keep me on point!” she will tell you — but you kind of don't want to. In just an hour in her sun-dappled, assemblage art–adorned Pasadena condo, the bubbly filmmaker makes tantalizing references to her childhood in segregated New Orleans: her Uncle Alvin, who played cornet behind Dixieland pioneer Kid Ory; the furniture store she passed as a girl that employed a young Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack; watching Little Richard record a radio spot for Royal Crown hair pomade.
“When you are from New Orleans, you are infected with music,” says McCullough, whose father was secretary of the NoLo black musicians' union. “Our house was built on the second story … and musicians would play under the house. I was frightened of all these men, until one time somebody said something off-color and [drummer] Earl Palmer came over and apologized to me.”
McCullough, whose family relocated to the Fairfax District in the late 1950s when she was 11, eventually joined the ranks of what's referred to as the “L.A. School” or “the L.A. Rebellion,” a multigenerational school of insurgent auteurs of color who decamped across the city from their HQ at UCLA's film department, capturing neo-magical-realist visions of black life from a multitude of unprecedented angles. McCullough was part of the second wave of the mid-'70s, which was dominated by female filmmakers like Julie Dash, Alile Sharon Larkin, O. Funmilayo Makarah and Carroll Parrott Blue. Their intensely personal films looked like documentaries but unspooled like dreams. Barry Jenkins' Oscar-nominated Moonlight and Beyoncé's seismic Lemonade “video album” would be unimaginable without them.
McCullough's new film, Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot, is a feature-length documentary that debuts next week at the Pan African Film Festival. Tapscott, who died in 1999, was a colorful and influential pianist, bandleader and community activist based in South L.A. Much like the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, he pointedly placed himself outside of the mainstream. He was a transplanted Texan who had had guns shoved in his face by white authority figures since he was 6 years old (intriguingly, the same age he took up piano) and was a target of J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO pogrom. His reaction? Launch his own guerrilla jazz orchestra (dubbed, in honor of Sun Ra, “the Arkestra”) and maintain it for three decades.
Thing is: Musical Griot isn't exactly new. McCullough first conceived of the project in summer 1976 and soon after shot her first footage of Tapscott performing at the Watts Towers Jazz Festival. (Her numerous camera assistants included UCLA colleagues Julie Dash, Charles Burnett and Billy Woodbury.) But it does add to a singular (if low-key) oeuvre that is sparser than, say, Dash's or Burnett's: McCullough has made only four films over 40 years. During that time she raised three children on the Single Mom Plan, worked for various Hollywood F/X firms like Praxis and Digital Domain, and spent the last six years in Georgia chairing the visual effects department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “All of it led to the Horace Tapscott project,” she told her audience last month at a MOCA screening of her 1979 short film Water Ritual #1. “As I often tell people, 'Children were born, grandchildren came into being before this film got finished.'”
In the film, Tapscott, a dashing 6-foot-5 obelisk dressed in an angelic white suit, stands before a 1991 “Meet the Composer” symposium in Santa Barbara. He is amazingly animated while he talks about the music to which he dedicated his very soul (“the sweet meat of my bones,” as he puts it). He seems a bit out of his element and it shows in his controlled kinetics, like punctuating his points with mini-swings of an invisible baseball bat. It's what makes such intimate footage so fascinating: a true street polymath stepping into another plane as a wary messenger, or, per the film's title, the very essence of the West African griot, a sort of oral storyteller/walking cultural encyclopedia tasked with passing on the traditions of his village. “The first thing they write about the black artist is that he's a junkie or a wino and he's not too intelligent, just … arrogant,” Tapscott imports. “But we have something that people all over the world want. So when we recognize that and treat it like that, then we will be recognized as the giant that we are.”
“I was astounded at how free he was in speaking about his history,” McCullough says. “It really put him in a position as a storyteller. The bottom line is you get a sense of who he was, his humor, what things really meant to him. And his commitment — that's one thing you can never deny about Horace.” This is not in dispute: Tapscott left sweat and literal blood on his piano keys after a performance, and the Arkestra produced more jazz talent of the '70s and '80s than we can list here. Many of them still walk our streets, scraping up gigs. Which is why there is a sequence in Griot that will delight those who loathed the whitesplaining of L.A. jazz history depicted in Damien Chazelle's awards juggernaut La La Land. “You cats call it 'West Coast music' but you don't know about the cats in the bush,” Tapscott rasps. “'Cause the cats in the bush didn't work at the Lighthouse.” He was walking, living, breathing proof.
Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot will have two screenings at the 25th annual Pan African Film Festival, Sun., Feb. 12, at 3:20 p.m. and Sat., Feb. 18, at 3 p.m. paff.org.