Horace Tapscott interview, 1989

LA Weekly, 7/89
by Greg Burk

The reason you may not have heard of Horace Tapscott is that he never went to live in New York. No, he's right here, where you can't see him. Tapscott has an attachment to the jazz lexicon by way of the piano, and in the '50s, when his style had grown into something unmistakable, all the musicians in L.A.'s Central Avenue scene were asking him, "Why don't you live in New York?" New York was the only big city in the USA where blazers of new jazz trails were considered by a fair number of critics to be artists (rather than outsiders too maladjusted to work in a factory), and so you could get yourself a Name there.

Yeah, great, but Tapscott didn't like it in the Big Awful, he liked it here. His mother, also a jazz pianist ("She wouldn't let me out of the house 'less she >heard> something"), had dragged him to L.A. from Houston in 1944, when he was 10, and he wasn't ready to uproot again. He had developed an attachment to "the community," by which he means the black community, and that "C" word became the central motive force in his life. And so he found himself in the position where "Your record might not be in the Top 10, but your life is."

Tapscott, who has long been a grandfather but could pass for 40, has lived with his wife in the same house for 25 years. The house is green, and it's on a shady street near Crenshaw and Vernon with lots of well-kept green lawns and green trees. Tapscott talks from under an apricot tree in his front yard. He probably chose the interview site to illustrate his place in the community: He gets a lot of waves from passing cars and pedestrians. He's tall and thin, and his elbows are all over the place. He jaunts around a little, cracks himself up and doubles over with a memory of something terrible, and chuckles: >heh-heh>. He talks the way he plays piano, with thoughts stringing together in loops of irresistible motion.

He talks about the past, skipping around, and eventually you get an idea of how jazzman and community fit together. Tapscott recalls that another thing his musician friends told him, in the early days when "We was on the tail of the whip" in the radical postwar generation, was "You gotta write, you gotta have a band." On this matter he took their advice to the extreme, helping to assemble, from around 1959, a 20-to-30-piece modular unit that included not just musicians, but poets, storytellers and even cartoonists. They would perform the works of Ellington, Basie and other "classical" black composers from the back of a flatbed truck, or split up into fives and sixes for a big park event, or hold concerts in churches, or play at lunchtime in the schools. "People saw us everywhere," says Tapscott. "Anytime they had a function, we was >there>."

The band evolved over the years into the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, an idea sparked by Sun Ra's Arkestra, which had a similar purpose: perpetuating the black musical experience. The two groups even shared members at times. In keeping with the "free" musical spirit of the '60s, Tapscott's Arkestra leaned hard in the direction of group improvisation, and continued to explore that vein as a part of its repertoire even after the form ceased to be fashionable. Hearing a dozen or two musicians taking off in as many inspirational directions from a Charlie Parker tune, yet churning mightily together in a subconscious groove, can be the next best thing to a typhoon. Over the years, the Arkestra has usually been a featured attraction at the annual Watts Towers Music and Arts Festival, a laid-back summer fair showcasing the music, food and art of the black community. The recordings of the Arkestra and of Tapscott's solo performances, randomly documented mostly on the small independent Nimbus Records, can be acquired at the festival (and not many other places).

The size of the Arkestra makes it an impractical piece of baggage to haul around, so most of Tapscott's performances are in a quartet format, lately with intense local players such as bassist Roberto Miranda, drummer Wynell Montgomery and trombonist Thurman Green. But you won't see him around here more than a few times a year, because, same old story, he's better known, uh, >abroad>. Tapscott hits Europe regularly, and just came back from a festival in Vancouver, B.C. ("a >very> appreciative audience").

When you >do> see him, though, nobody will have to ask you to pay attention, because no one else plays like this. In his younger days, Tapscott received the ceremonial laying on of hands after performances on two separate occasions: from Duke Ellington and from Erroll Garner. O-kay. He admits the influence of Garner (which you can hear a little in the way he >stirs> his big chords), Art Tatum, Earl Hines and . . . >Vladimir Horowitz>. "I liked the way he >grabbed hold> of the piano," says Tapscott, sticking his elbows and hands far apart, as if about to lift a dining-room table. That's the image you get -- long, tall Tapscott, hunched and rocking over the keyboard, just >molesting> the thing from one end to the other in gigantic waves. The style even has a little of the the classical in it (long-armed Horace also studied >classical trombone>), but retains the indomitable presence of the blues and makes frequent returns to Latin patterns, not forgetting his Southwest home(s). Tapscott makes fans fast. The usual response is, "Where did this guy >come> from?"

Tapscott's musical and social activities ran into a roadblock in 1978 in the form of a cerebral aneurysm. "It was from all the >things> I was concerned with . . . heh-heh," he says, squinting and pointing to his head. Tapscott is referring to the continuing challenges of the black man in white society. The doctor gave him a coin-flip for his post-operative chances. "The four other men in my ward, who all had the same thing, they all died." Tapscott says that during the operation he went out of his body, saw himself and the doctors below him, talked with a strange man in a black suit, and went down a long beam of light. A familiar story, yes? He says he saw many who had died in past years, who held out their hands, "Like, 'You can come . . . if you want to. But you're still thinking about that Arkestra, aren't you?'" When he woke up, the first thing he did was wiggle his fingers: "Can I play?"

It turned out that he could play, but for three years that's about all he >could> do. "I was just looking out my window at the avocado tree, getting my thought patterns together."

These days, Tapscott is doing what he did: playing music, involving himself with the community. Only the community has changed. The kids aren't much concerned anymore with the churches and the schools. Tapscott blames forced integration in part, saying busing took away the sense of an identity with the whole neighborhood, and isolated the kids. While he's not a separatist, he takes a practical view of things: "You don't like us? Slick. We're over here." The American ideal of exponential consumption has done its work on kids' attitudes, too. Tapscott tells the story of a boy on a bicycle asked by a neighbor why he isn't in school. The boy says, "I'll go back to school if you have more money in your pocket than I do," and pulls out a wrist-thick roll of bills, acquired through his extracurricular activities. Says Tapscott, "You see 'em grow up, and you see 'em die. That's rough." Still, he wants to be where he is, "in the heart of it," a phrase he repeats at regular intervals.

Tapscott is part of a line of people with wild artistic ideas and old-fashioned social ones. He started here with musicians like bandleader Gerald Wilson, and the next generation included Tapscott, John Carter, Harold Land and a lot of others who are still around. But things have changed, and the line is thinning.

Tapscott tells another story, of his neighborhood minister, whose church walls keep getting tagged with graffiti. The kids tag, he paints it over. They tag again, he paints again. They tag, he paints, over and over and over. The minister, out there with his brush again, says calmly, "We gonna see who got the endurance."