14 février 2010

Horace Tapscott by David Keller

Published in JazzTimes (JT 60908), october 1982.

“I remember seing Art Tatum on the streets of Los Angeles. He was playing at the Clark Hotel on Washington and Central. His driver stopped the car for this 16 year old kid to cross the street. And then I felt the blind eye of Art Tatum’s staring into my face all the way across the crosswalk”.
Horace Tapscott is reminiscing, something his breakneck schedule doesn’t usually allow. Tapscott is a trombone player turned pianist and is considered by some to be one of the most innovative pianists playing today. Since 1961 he has led the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, an orchestra ranging in size from 13-35 players. For its work and style it has been compared to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and to Charles Mingus’ big bands. But while such former Arkestra alumni as Arthur Blythe and Azar Lawrence have gone on to national recognition, Tapscott himself remains in the shadows. To appreciate his story, it’s best to start at the beginning.
Born in Houston, Texas on April 4, 1934, Tapscott grew up in a segregated part of the city in a long narrow “shotgun” house, “where the piano was always in the middle of the floorand had to be played”. His mother, Mary Lou Malone, a jazz pianist and tuba player in the local Church orchestra, took him to high school band concerts featuring classical and blues material on the weekends.
In 1945 the family moved to Los Angeles, settling into the South Central section of town. It was there his musical training commenced. During his ninth grade year at Lafeyette Junior High, Dr. Samuel Browne visited the school picking out students for his Jefferson High swing band.
Browne taught the young boy during his developing years from 1949-52 at Jeffersons. It was an impressive learning experience. Over the years Browne’s swing band included Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Troy Brown, and Joe Villereal among others. Earlier bands of Browne’s nurtured the talents of Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Art and Addison Farmer.
If young students worked hard at their musical studies in Dr. Browne’s arranging and harmony classes, the teacher recommended them for lessons with Lloyd Reese. Reese was a legendary instructor who’d taught greats like Wardell Gray, Big Jay McNeely and many others. Since Reese was also charging “big time dough”, Tapscott, Dolphy, Frank Morgan and other young students were allowed to pay for their lessons by cleaning Reese’s yard and house.
The backdrop of all of the academic training was a flourishing music culture – the Central Avenue Scene. Caught in the economic upswing of World War II, Central Avenue spawned a thriving night life where all types of music could be heard. Prominent musicians ranging from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Jay McShann to Bird and Howard McGhee all played the city on a regular basis, creating a musical renaissance.
These heady days influenced the young Tapscott immensely. He recalls, “The musicians unions were segregated then. The Black Union was local 767 and was located about ten minutes from where I lived. So I spent a lot of time there with men who taught me like Buddy Collette, Percy MacDavid and Gerald Wilson.
“But there were all sorts of great local orchestras around too. Chick Touchstone, Peppe Prince, Jeep Smith all had great bands. Sammy Franklin too. Sammy was the father of Henry “The Skipper” Franklin, the bassist. I’d watch all these guys.
“I’d spend all my time down at the union. All my time. I’d be sitting out on a stool in front of the place because the union was nothing but a big old three story house like you see now on Adams Boulevard. All the bands rehearsed at the same time. A band on each of the three floors. The dors would be jumping! Big Jay McNeely, with that big sound would be blowing on top. Down below him would be another orchestra rehearsing. But somehow it all worked.”
Tapscott went on to join the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, working with this unit from 1950 through 1951. In the brass section playing trombone, Tapscott became aware of some of the intricacies of Wilson’s arrangements and began contemplating his own future as an arranger.
In the 1950’s Tapscott also did some R&B work with Chuck Higgins and performed with Higgins on “Pachuco Hop”, a song that became a hit throughout the South.
But these successes were the exception to the rule. Confronting a bleak job market, the 19 year-old decided to accept the counseling of older musicians like Buddy Collette and join the service. From 1953-57 he was a member of the U.S. Air Force Military Band. In the Air Force he studied three instruments; trombone, baritone and piano. But piano was the one that fascinated him and he began devoting long hours of practice toward mastering the instrument.
Returning to Los Angeles he worked occasional gigs until he began leading his own group the following year. This unit featured Lester Robertson, David Bryant, Jimmy Woods, Guido Sinclair, Everett Brown Jr. or Leroy Brooks. The band performed a répertoire of “free-type music” at local clubs which did not catch on.
Deciding to go out on the road, Tapscott fulfilled a childhood dream by working with Lionel Hampton from 1959-61. Having seen Hamp on more than one occasion during his early years, Tapscott eventually joined Hampton. Lester Robertson also joined the band at this time and the two became closer friends in Hamp’s band. Leaving Hampton in 1961, the two decided to try freelancing in New York. But after a period of little work and when Dolphy and other members of ‘Trane’s Village Vanguard band could only loan them less than $15, Tapscott and Robertson rejoined Hampton and traveled back to Los Angeles with him.
Arriving home Tapscott began organizing a group of musicians into an organization that became the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Originally named the Community Cultural Arkestra, those instrumental in maintaining the group were Lester Robertson, trombone; Linda Hill, vocals, piano; David Bryant, Alan Hines, bass; Jimmy Woods, Arthur Blythe, Guido Sinclair, reeds; and Everett Brown Jr. or Leroy Brooks, drums.
The Arkestra promptly became a full time activity and the group was soon practicing “24 hours a day”. According to Tapscott, the “Ark” was founded to promote the band’s non-commercial music, showing some of the resources and talents that the community could develop. The group also sought to counter the negative image associated with modern jazz by presenting music in a positive, drug-free atmosphere which did not belittle the listener’s intelligence. The group also encouraged young would-be musicians to attend workshops sponsored by the Ark’s organizational wing, the Union of Gods Musicians and Artists Ascension Foundation (UGMAA).
The conductor explains, “As we began playing we found that there were a lot of people within the community who wanted to be part of our organization. Not necessarily musicians, but artists of all sorts. So a unification of the community began. And after a few years people began to realize who we were and then those same people tried to listen to our music.
“Black composers had been virtually excluded from the media and sot hey were hidden from people. Except for a few of us who were lucky enough to study musical history most of us had no idea about the history of the Black contribution to American music; the music that is the first art form that originated in America.
“Through the feeling of music we tried to get over as well as enlighten, at the same time learning to live with other people. Those were our original goals and we are still working on them”.
Today, the Arkestra is composed of 13 members. While some of the group’s more illustrious members have long since gone their own way, other members continue to work with the band on a regular basis. In addition, Red Callender sits in frequently and newcomers like Sabir Mateen and Roberto Miguel Miranda add a fresh breeze of creative ideas to the orchestra.
The Ark divides its time between performing concerts locally and recording new material for the Nimbus Records label. State and national tours are in the planning stages, but to date nothing has been finalized.
Tapscott himself is also planning a fuller schedule of concert and club dates with a small group in and around California. For those interested in his music all of the Nimbus records are recommended. The current album, “Dial “B” For Barbra”, features Tapscott on piano in a sextet format. The personnel includes Gary Bias on reeds, Reggie Bullen on trumpet, Sabir Mateen on tenor sax, Everett Brown Jr. on drums and Roberto Miguel Miranda on bass.
Tapscott’s angular piano pyrotechnics place him somewhere beside Thelonious Monk, a man he reveres, and McCoy Tyner, although his music and style are distinctly his own. His albums sell moderately in the United States with sales heavier in the Scandinavian countries, Western Europe and Japan.
The bandleader seems to understand the uphill battle of the uncompromising artist. Still, he is optimistic about the future. With musicians like Don Cherry, Arthur Blythe and James Newton mentioning his name during their European tours and with an improving club scene for free music developing in Los Angeles, he feels that things are changing. (In 1981 on separate occasions Tapscott played with his trio at festivals in Verona and Padova, Italy).
The gifted pianist could probably gig more locally and internationally, but he seems resolutely unwilling to do so. Having suffered a pair of neurysms in 1978 he, of course, can’t be on the road constantly. But Tapscott is a person who seems dedicated to building his own community’s awareness and appréciation for the Arkestra’s bold, free style music, even if his own career languishes in the procès.
One of his dream is to be able to lead different groups playing his music “without any drawbacks”. It is this qualification that has made him pull tapes from record company executives who wanted to make his sound more commercial.
Speaking with the intense, middle-aged musician you get the feeling that if someone offered him a tour along the college circuit (a ready-made market for this music) he’d accept the gig somewhat indifferently.
Perhaps Tapscott himself sums up best what he’s trying to do. “I’m after the people on the street. When they think about music they don’t think about my material because they aren’t exposed to it. Most of those you talk with about music will mention someone commercial. That’s who they’ve heard of. But because we’re into a different type of music we don’t get in the media. Maybe in something special, but certainly not enough to catch their attention. The only way for us to get their attention is to go where they are, take it to them”.
It’s a tall order and one that keeps Tapscott continually working. But for someone who believes so strongly in this vision, this is the only way to live.

1 commentaire:

Megan Loraine a dit…

Hello! The author of the original article sited here, David Keller, recently published a new pictorial history of Seattle's Black Musicians' Union, titled The Blue Note. His website is: http://kellerjazz.net/
Check it out!