14 février 2010

Horace Tapscott: Interview by Elaine Cohen Part Two

"A Legacy to Pass on."
Horace Tapscott Talking

Published in Cadence vol.10 No.8, august 1984.


When Tapscott left the Air Force, he returned to Los Angeles. "It was hard to get started," he remembers, "somehow or other, something happened. My friend Lester Robinson called me one night and said, do I want to go to New York. This was in 1979. I said, 'Yeah.' So I joined Lionel Hampton's band and we were in it about a year. Lester and I came back to New York and I spent time there seeing how things were going on. You know, it was kind of displeasing because those were the days, '61, when groups like John Coltrane's group were making universal music but no one had any kind of money coming from it, just having their regular hassles. It seemed kind of lopsided to me when I was sitting in the audience when they were cutting this album Spiritual, and how people from far lands were there and all the cats on the bandstand didn't have $5 in their pocket. And we knew that for a fact because they had to give us some of what they had, me and Lester, so we could eat. We had been put out of our hotel at the time, so Eric and Trane and those cats let us have it. But it seemed so unbalanced to me. We'd go with Hampton on the road, playing down in the South and people be coming in dancing, listening to Hamp and us play. Then they'd put us on a bus and we'd cut out again to another place. When we came back to L.A., I stayed off the bus. I changed my mind. I said, I can't go back under this kind of circumstance... the music was getting lost as far as I was concerned."
"So I came back into contact with those people who had different ideas about life, these were mostly Black musicians, and we put our instruments together and started doing things like trying to showcase community artists at the highest level we could think of - to have it become a standard. So up to about five years ago, we've been doing that steady, rehearsing day and night and having a concert twice a month at these churches. The only way we felt we could get the music to the people was to take the music to the people, because they wouldn't come where it was and they had no idea what was happening. We thought the best way would be through churches and street corners, recreation halls and schools. Every one of them free. Free concerts."

CAD: Everyone had to support themselves by doing something else?
H.T.: At that time, some of them had jobs, some of them had a hustle... But whatever they had, construction job or whatever, they'd be very tired when they got home from work, but they'd still be at the rehearsal. That's where all the energy would be used up. I got to the point where this music couldn't be denied anymore, it had to be listened to.
We built ourselves up through the community through the years. The Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra. Took us a long time. I mean, we got to know everybody in the community. It got to the point where they would say, "Where is our band?" And that really got me. We'd do giant concerts on weekends, like at South Park, the park at 51st and San Pedro... Give those concerts and it seemed like everybody in the community would show up. The babies that weren't born then, the babies that were being made, and the babies that were just beginning to walk grew up with this Arkestra. Lots of them went to school, came back and tried to help the Arkestra because their parents took them to every concert we ever had. They write about the Arkestra in the community.
We was trying to inspire the artists, not only the musicians, but the other artists to do their art. Like the writers... They'd come here and be sitting in this room for many years and we'd talk about it. They'd say, "Well, what is there to write about?" I'd tell them, "Every morning the sun rises, there's something to write about, my man. Walk the street, you dig, look at it. There's so much to write about. You don't have to go off on nobody, just write and see what's happening. Then you grow." Cats started writing, some of the, singers got together, people started trying to put something together.
The long run has proven that a lot of these people are still here and they're still contributing. The idea of the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra, that orchestra that came out of the UGMAA Foundation, was to preserve, present, to showcase music of unknown composers, Black composers who were never heard of before in this land. Starting with this land first, of course, and with this community first, in particular. Now, the idea had gotten across the country by word of mouth. Cats pass it from word of mouth like the cats back in Chicago. They had a group in Omaha, Nebraska called the UGMAA Foundation, too. Oliver Lake in St. Louis, all that was going on through the '60s and into the '70s. Then some of the people got signed on different record dates and they took off. Like Arthur (Blythe) went to New York, certain cats who were here at the beginning. John Handy was part of it too. There were about 35 original members. 'Bout half of them went to New York, San Francisco and overseas. There's 20 of them left here and they're still rehearsing up to the point where the hurricane a few weeks ago took the place away.
CAD: A hurricane took the place??
H.T.: Yeah, we had a place on Broadway... and that's what happened. We got a place on Vermont we can still rehearse in. The problem is not a facility this time, it's more the circumstances of a lot of the cats. I went on what you might call a sabbatical, so to speak, about five years ago. I'd gotten ill in '78, so, since we've had different leaders. I had to leave it alone because for 20 years, I was on it like that! (He snaps his fingers emphatically.)

During that initial period of coming together with like-minded musicians in the early '60s, Horace was also playing piano regularly at the Troubador Club in Los Angeles. An automobile accident he was in during his Air Force years had changed his embouchure and he wasn't satisfied with the sound he was getting on trombone. And all along, he had been playing piano with pointers from Dr. Samuel Browne.

At the Troubador, it was the only gig I had six nights a week where the owner says, "If you play anything but Jazz, you're going to have to get out of here"... It was straight ahead music we were playing then, and it was Elmo Hope, Jimmy Woods, Guido Sinclair, Charlie Lloyd sometimes, Walter Benton, and the drummer was a cat named Rafmad Jamal, bass player was Bill Pickens. Albert Stinson, he learned to play in that club, Bobby Hutcherson used to learn to play, him and Roy Ayers. They were youngsters then, used to come in to play every night. Ava Gardner used to come in, sit in the dark so she wouldn't be bothered and listen all night. The captain of the vice squad came in every night and we knew he was the police 'cause he had the police haircut, the police thing, but he was another kind of cat. He wouldn't bust nobody when he came, he said, "I come to listen to you people." And I thought that was nice, man, because he was really some other kind of cat, really a music lover. They try to put dope in all this stuff with Jazz, but it's not necessary. That was a good gig, the Troubador.
CAD: What are your plans for the future?
H.T.: I'm trying to get some work up and down the coast of California, college, universities, concert halls, certain clubs... with a trio, and trying to get it together to do a cable TV show... trying to get it written by the different writers around. Tell them what, one, two, three... can you do it? On the cable hookup. Most likely, the next ten, fifteen years, I'll be dealing with the Arkestra, trying to build it to its final size of about 75, 100 pieces. With all that music. This is exactly what I would like to finish before I leave the planet. So when people, in years to come are having babies, they'll say, "I want to get into the so and so orchestra" - whatever it's called then. You see, they have orchestras that play the European classics but they don't have that for the American classics.
CAD: They keep trying to do something like that up in the Bay Area, but nothing really seems to stick...
H.T.: That's why you have to stay on it because it's not going to be easy.
CAD: Right. Once it becomes an institution, it exists.
H.T.: It exists and it takes the people themselves to prove it. If the youngsters see you there, if you're alive and functioning, they see it happening and they believe. "Oh, you still here? You ain't getting no money for that... You still here?" "Yeah." The people have to learn that you just can't do things for money. Well, the youngsters are hip to it, like in Watts before the riots. They knew who was for real and who was jiving. I always say this, I was the only cat who could park his car in Watts and leave it open and it would be there when I got back, have the music and clothes in it and it was open. That's when you know it's cool.
When the youngsters started dancing on the school grounds to the music you wrote... you should have seen me... I had a lump in my throat so big. Big old fat tear just fell out of my eye right quick before I realized what was happening. Kids about eight to ten years old. Street kids, and they was dancing. Whatever was wrong with me at the time just disappeared. That shot me up for another two years.
Finally they started having money to go down and teach the kids in Watts and East L.A., places like that. Ex-cons, ex-this and that, so a lot of Black activism come out. But some of them couldn't get along because the youngsters were too raw, too straight ahead. "If you weren't getting any money, you wouldn't be here!" See, we were playing there when the Black Panthers and Elaine Brown were working together, they were feeding the group. My band was ready for anything like that. Any group that was contributing to the whole, my band would play for free. That's what we did for all the Black groups of those days, for years and years and years and years. To prove a point that the music had to live.
CAD: Are you any less idealistic than when you started, or more so?
H.T.: I would say more so. It's not a lost cause since I'm breathing still, there's still something that can be done. The approach, the way you do it, is important now, it's what you think about mostly. How you can get it over to the point where (the music) becomes an everyday kind of function without even thinking about it. How you can pass this on without making a big deal out of it. It's like when you have a youngster and you want them to appreciate colors, just fill their room with colors, don't tell them about it, just let it be there.
I might have went somewhere and made some money - those kinds of questions have been asked. I would explain it like this. I can't come over to a person's house and say, "I don't like the couch by the window - put it over there." Because if I come to his home, he wants me to sit in it where he's got it, you dig, not where I want it. Same way playing that music in the studios. They want you to play a certain kind of way. And you don't want to do that. No point wasting their or your time. That's one of the reasons the money scene has been such a long ways off, because I had to respect where these people were coming from. But my thing is important enough that it can be dealt with in that same way.
The way it is now, the music itself is in a circle. All the commercial music is waiting for the real music to do something else so they can grab onto that. But it's never disappeared. The music keeps going decade through decade... This music here belongs to those of us who appreciate good music. And want to inspire to keep it happening for generations, to have a strong enough voice to demand different things as one solid group. Like the European classics have one solid group to take care of it. That's what we need in this music. That way, it's always hooked up. The acoustics are good, people will be there to listen. It's something that can be done, but there's some things that have to be done on an independent level, away from corporations and clubs and back to the rank and file people on the street.
CAD: You've played with or listened to just about everyone in modern Jazz. Who influenced your playing?
H.T.: I would say Art Tatum and Samuel Browne had an influence on my playing, and a cat named Roosevelt Wardell. There are several people I love to listen to as far as influence. If I was to buy piano records I would buy Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, people like Red Garland. The way Andrew plays, I love it... it's creative all the time. Other than that, Art Tatum, the way he'd interpret in his own way. Hopefully, that's what I can leave here, in my own way. Naturally, you're going to be influenced - you should be. Course my mom was in there because she's one of those stride pianists... that's a lot of piano playing. As far as my writing, Gerald Wilson and Duke Ellington. Actually, Gerald was the cat who taught and helped me to write. And most of the writers today are based on that, though they wouldn't admit it. Other than that, here and there, serendipity kind of thing. By being part of the groups, asking questions in how to do this, how to do that. That's helped me to get to the point, like that album with Sonny Criss, "Sonny's Dream." Ever heard that album? All those compositions were just influenced by people around me. Take it over and let the cats hear it. Several times cats have heard me play and then they say, Errol Garner, and then they say there's a little Meade Lux Lewis. My point is, I'd like to contribute toward this great American classic, which it is.

Los Angeles, CA - 5/28/83

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