Steven L. Isoardi’s The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles belongs on a shelf with the few jazz histories that do it all: John F. Szwed on Sun Ra, David Hajdu on Billy Strayhorn, Gene Santoro on Charles Mingus. Thorough, contextually insightful and crisply written, it leaves a reader knowing more not just about art life in this city, but about American life in general. The appendix by Arkestra bassist Roberto Miranda throws a warm light on Horace Tapscott’s music-making process, and the accompanying CD makes the result wonderfully tangible. All this could have disappeared. But a few people really cared.
An excerpt, about African-American artists’ place in the cultural spectrum, follows.
Even those artists who pursued a more commercial path remained bound to their communities. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, segregation forced all African-American musicians of whatever genre preference and of whatever class into being community artists. Those few who attained national renown and toured a good part of every year spent most of their time within African-American communities around the country, leaving only to play commercial gigs. In urban areas, it was important for black musicians to gain a union card, but they were confronted by a segregated American Federation of Musicians, which maintained separate black locals in most cities. Consequently, even the most commercially successful artists remained very much a part of the larger African-American community, physically, emotionally and artistically. Whether sharing day labor in the fields, rambling from town to town, juke joint to juke joint, or traveling in buses from theater to theater, musicians carried and drew from a common reservoir of social experience and cultural attitudes. As visible members of their communities, no matter what degree of renown achieved, they provided not only inspiration and their art to the community, but also everyday accessibility to the succeeding generations, those young people gathered outside the hotels, theaters, union halls, diners and boarding houses.
By the early 1960s, Horace Tapscott and other artists had concluded that an alternative value system and aesthetic that drew from the communal aspects of their history and addressed contemporary needs was necessary.