Over two decades ago, bassist Trevor Ware was returning from a gig to his home in Leimert Park, the neighborhood just south of the 10 freeway and west of USC. “The gig ended at 1, I’m coming through the neighborhood at 3," Ware recalls, "and I hear a piano in the World Stage. Sure enough, it’s Horace Tapscott in there. No lights on, just playing by himself. I just stood outside at 3 in the morning and had a private concert!”
Tapscott, the legendary pianist and community leader who in 1961 founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, held one of three keys to a small performance gallery on Degnan Boulevard. The other two belonged to poet-activist Kamau Daáood and to renowned jazz drummer Billy Higgins, whose melodic and energetic rhythms are on a multitude of famous jazz records by everyone from Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon to Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny.
In 1989, Daáood and Higgins became partners in a new venture, which they named the World Stage. It was a big name for such a tiny space, with maybe enough room to seat 20 or 30 people at the most. Nevertheless, the World Stage became a vital component to Leimert Park, the epicenter of African-American art and culture in Los Angeles since the late 1960s.
Higgins would spent the final decade of his life at the World Stage, inspiring and encouraging scores of promising young musicians, many of whom are now leading a new renaissance of jazz in Los Angeles. Current saxophone colossus Kamasi Washington and producer Terrace Martin are among those who spent time there, following the lead of initial disciples like Ware and a impassioned singer with a booming voice named Dwight Trible.
Ware and Trible are sitting down in their office above the brand-new location for the World Stage, across the street from the original. Since 2013, Ware has served as president of the World Stage's board of directors and Trible as executive director. Both men remain firmly established artists, Ware as the bassist for the legendary Count Basie Orchestra and Trible with an international vocal jazz career and as vocal director for the late Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.
Trible was initially somewhat reluctant to take on a leadership role at the World Stage. He recalls asking himself then, “I’m still out here in the game as an artist, do I really have the time to do it?” Ultimately his answer came from a portrait of Higgins, hanging above the door (as it does in the new space). “There was a look in Billy’s eyes as he was looking in my eyes. It seemed like that picture was saying, ‘What do you think I was grooming you for? I knew one day it was going to come down to you!’ And so, at that point, I said OK.”
The new leaders faced an immediate existential challenge, as the building that housed the World Stage was sold in 2013 to new owners who, according to Trible, didn’t have the gallery in their future plans. Being forced to move was the catalyst for a renewed commitment to refresh their vision to reflect the current needs of their community and the rapidly changing jazz landscape. “There’s a new energy at the World Stage,” Ware says. “We’re not stuck in the past. Even Kamau encourages us to evolve.”
That evolution fully materialized on March 1 of this year, when the World Stage migrated across Degnan Boulevard to its new home, a spacious, elongated room with a stage in front with full lighting and sound capabilities. The move was scheduled for the afternoon, so as usual they had their regular morning workshops in the old place, and then the mobilization effort began. “We put out the word for everybody in the community to show up at 2,” Trible recalls. “It was a constant parade of about 100 people walking up and down the street, moving stuff to the new spot. By 6 we had the room ready to do the evening concert. We did not miss a beat! Shit was rollin’ and it’s been rollin’ ever since!”
With the capacity to seat 100 people or more, the new venue has allowed for more high-profile bookings by current artists such as Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin, Bennie Maupin, and the Kansas City 7, a project featuring current members of the Count Basie Orchestra, including Ware on bass.
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“It will be interesting to bring members of the Basie band here,” says Ware. “When someone was in town, Billy was about bringing them down to the World Stage too, so they could touch and inspire people.” On Dec. 3, he and his Basie bandmates will play music from a critically acclaimed small band record from 1962 by Basie, called Count Basie and The Kansas City 7.
In addition to the concerts, the World Stage continues to provide artistic programs to the people of Leimert Park and beyond. They have a number of weekly workshops, on topics including music theory, percussion and poetry. Trible has been instrumental in keeping the best of the traditions established by Higgins, Daáood and Tapscott, and moving forward from there.
“We just know that this is something that spiritually is the right thing for us to do,” he says emphatically. “They blessed our lives, and now it’s time to give of ourselves.”
For a complete list of upcoming events at the World Stage, visit its website.