14 février 2010

Horace Tapscott: Interview by Elaine Cohen Part One

"A Legacy to Pass on."
Horace Tapscott Talking

Published in Cadence vol.10 No.7, july 1984.


Beneath the mists of legend surrounding the name of Horace Tapscott lie hard facts and beautiful music. In Los Angeles, where many musicians opt for lucrative studio work, pianist/composer Horace Tapscott has maintened the 17-piece Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra that played on the streetcorners of Watts during the 1960's and is still playing free concerts today. The Arkestra, an extension of the UGMAA Foundation (Union Of God's Musicians & Artists Ascension), ensures that the people of Los Angeles have access to the luxurious musical world which is their heritage. Complementing Tapscott's work with groups large and small (see discography) are the solo sessions in which notes dance, memories linger and the pianist's rhapsodic, eclectic, hard-driving imagination is in full swing.
Commited to his vision and his community, Tapscott has remained in Los Angeles, relatively unknown. Thus the legend, as music as fresh and advanced as his creates deep ripples in the lake. "Our music is contibutive, not competitive," he says, with concern for future generations. Like the bands of Ellington, Basie, and Sun Ra, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra has contributed another dimension to American music, although the music is only given its due outside America. But Horace, at 49, with keen vision sees the necessity of continuing his path for each individual the music touches has value in his eyes. Recently he's been touring Europe and looking forward to performing solo or with trio or sextet outside Southern California.
What's missing of course, from this interview is Tapscott laughter, resonant voice and expressive gestures. We sat on the sunporch of his comfortable home in Los Angeles' Crenshaw District with his agent, David Keller, bassist David Bryant, one of the original Arkestra members and various relatives. When asking him about the way things used to be on Los Angeles' famed Central Avenue in the '40s - which has assumed mythic proportions for a younger generation, he replied:

HORACE TAPSCOTT: ...You mean what they call the good years of the music, the renaissance years. That was what I call being really blessed because I was right smack in the heart of it. I got here (from Houston) the last of '43. I was about nine. Lived in Fresno for a while. When I got back to Los Angeles that's when I was able to check out all the musicians who were on the set at the time. All the Black musicians you can think of from Art Tatum to Errol Garner, to Red Callender to Duke Ellington, Big Jay McNeely, Les Hite, you know, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton... they were all there.
At that time, it was Black union, segregrated, Local 767, so naturally, all of them had to come through there. On Central Avenue where the Santa Monica Freeway crosses Central is where the Union was. And up the street for about 13 or 14 blocks was where the music started, the clubs all across the street from each other, live music. Buddy Collette's group, Gerald Wilson, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington... there were a lot of them. I was right there inside of it all. And of all the rehearsal bands I was in, I was the youngest cat in there.
CADENCE: Were you playing piano then, or trombone?
H.T.: Trombone. I was one of the young cats, Eric Dolphy was the other one and Lester Robinson and Frank Morgan. We were under cats like Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, and those brothers - one of them just died - the Royal brothers, Marshall and Ernie Royal, John Anderson, Red Kelly, Clifford Brown... just all of them you could think of, they were there. Gerald Wilson was the leader of this orchestra then and we were all in his band with Melba Liston, Keg Johnson, Jimmy Cheatham, Lawrence Marable was the drummer, and Roy Porter. Sonny Criss he was in and out, but Sonny was on the set.
And all these people came out of the high school band, Jefferson High, Samuel Browne's band. He'd fill the street with musicians. Everything was so close in those days. In school I was under the direction of Percy MacDavid. This is the concert side, we'd be playing the European classics... and they made sure that we, the younger players always was in on something that had to do with playing. We heard the Russian conductors. My teachers would come to my home and pick me up for rehearsal, come to ask my mother could they come take me to rehearsal. Gerald Wilson would pick me up, Mr. MacDavid, sometimes Lloyd Reese would pick us up and take us to music lessons, make sure we went.
CAD: What a rich period it was then... what a lot of concern.
H.T.: Yeah, there was that. Black music at that time was still at its top level in the community. You know, dancers and singers and music, that was the big thing. The Joe Louis came on the set and he opened up the Moulin Rouge in Las Vegas. That band had Benny Carter and Gerald Wilson. I was part of that band too. It was just like you say, it was rich. Then it got to 1950, 1951, that's when the Union merged with Local 47. By then, Central Avenue had closed up. Yeah, because it was bringing a lot of money down there and the Hollywood actresses was coming down there and that wasn't too cool after a while. Ava Gardner and Lana Turner were coming down, Martha Ray... to listen to bebop. Charlie Parker was here playing then, Miles Davis. Before they went off to New York and cut those albums. They cut some of those real old ones out here on Dial Records.
Bird was the one who was going to come down and give us, the younger musicians, a lecture on dope and stuff. But it turned out he couldn't make it that night 'cause they was having a party... (laughs)... It was a legendary party. Everybody took off their clothes and jumped into the pool. Oscar Peterson and all those cats were there, that's what happened that night.
But all day long, every day was filled with music. Buddy Collette had a night school where they were giving guys lessons in improvisation. Matter of fact, when I was coming up, my mom wouldn't let me out of the house for four hours unless I put in four hours on my instrument. Then I could do anything I wanted.
I'll never forget her saving nine dollars a week when she was in her early '30s to buy me a trombone. She had been teaching me piano, and I didn't want that 'cause I thought it was a sissy, you know, that violin and piano bit. Every Sunday when they had a concert, she'd take me, made sure I was there. At this particular concert they played the William Tell Overture. There's a part where the trombones get real big and masculine, so I pulled her dress and said, "That's what I want." So she went and worked for nine dollars a week, saved it. Wouldn't buy enough food, my whole family always would sacrifice so I could play. My sister, she wouldn't eat, so i could eat and have the strength to play. It was really out. And they were going to send me to Juilliard... saved up all their money to send me. I told them I really didn't want to go there, but they were sending me there, you dig. It got to the point where I said, "I love it, but I can do something else rather than have you spend that kind of money for that." My mom, she still comes to concerts, says, "Where you playing at next?" And I take her.
It was very rich around here when I was growing up in the '40s and most of those people are still around. Like Gerald Wilson lives around the corner and I still see him.

After a year in the brass section of Gerald Wilson's orchestra where he received invaluable lessons in the art of arranging, Horace joined the Air Force in 1953. Stationed in Wyoming, he became part of the Air Force Band, playing trombone, piano and baritone saxophone. During four long, snowy winters in Wyoming, where he and his wife Cecilia Payne, had the first three of their eight children, there was plenty of time to think about "presenting the music as Black arts." Although he had done some studio work in records hit, Chuck Higgins "Pechuco Hop," Horace was developing an alternative vision. The Air Force offered him six stripes to stay in the service with the band, but the exposure he had to the music and people in Los Angeles made that offer "go in one ear and out the other." He says of the musicians he was experimenting musically in Los Angeles:

H.T.: A lot of them were called derelicts, so to speak, people who had their own way of thinking about things, the East Side musicians. Play all that 'funny music' they call it. Anyway, we got together because we had something in common, and that common thing was freedom - socially, financially and humanly. It was more than just the music itself, it was that our only way of interpreting our feelings was through the music. By taking that kind of path, that meant preserving the music was just a part of the whole everyday thing - from your basic ideas about life.
In my particular case it had to do with my race and our position in this country and in this world. To clarify the position we did have to see whether or not it made any sense to be a part of this whole picture here and not be recognized for your contributions toward this country? This country is a great country because of all the contributions from all its inhabitants. But in our situation, and the age I was, 19, early 20s, it was bothering me. Like I didn't know what to do, exactly. I had some kind of feeling about this since high school. They were telling us about protecting yourself when you got out of school, having something to pass on, legacies that have some meaning to them, learning something so you can get into something - all this was bugging me.
So I went through the service, I was in the Air Force Band, I formed a group in the Air Force Band with a drummer named Billy James and several other musicians. We played what they called at that time, the regular Jazz. Still, I had time to think about what I wanted to do when I got out of the service, and it didn't have anything to do with just playing.

End of Part One. 5/28/1983 - Los Angeles, CA.

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