Obituaries: Horace Tapscott

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The Independent Culture
NEW YORK jazz musicians will often cite the balmy climate of California as a reason for not living there, regarding it as destructive of any creative musical urge. The musical rebels are most usually found in the poorer parts of New York or Chicago. Horace Tapscott, along with the more eminent Charlie Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon, was an exception, and spent all his most productive years, 38 of them, in Los Angeles. He was also responsible for teaching what black innovators there were in the city and nourished the talents of Arthur Blythe, James Newton, David Murray and Azar Lawrence, all creative players who became far better known than Tapscott himself.

He was not so much a musical anarchist as one who simply chose to use his own system. He was a significant figure within the black community of Los Angeles, and the various orchestras he led became rallying points for the city's young musicians. The two best known of his groups were the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension Foundation (Ugmaa).

These were not names that would fit easily on a record label, and that is perhaps a reason why his groups made so few recordings. The Ugmaa was also used as a second name for the Underground Musicians' Union, a secondary creation of Tapscott's.

The race riots in Watts of 1965 were a seminal part of the history of the civil rights movement. Watts is a mainly black suburb of Los Angeles. Tapscott took the Arkestra to play during the disturbances. "Kids were dancing in the streets while the Arkestra played inside," he said. "That is until the police found it necessary to pour in through the doors and at gunpoint order 30 dancers and musicians to stop playing." Tapscott took the Arkestra out into the riots, playing on the backs of lorries. When things calmed down Tapscott was given some state and federal funding, and the Arkestra began to play weekly, mainly in churches and universities.

Tapscott was born in Houston and taken by his mother, Mary Lou Malone, to Los Angeles in 1945 when he was nine. Malone was a stride pianist and tuba player. The family lived near to the local black musicians' union building (Los Angeles musicians' unions were segregated until 1953), and as a teenager Tapscott met some of the most distinguished instrumentalists of the area. "Gerald Wilson and Melba Liston" (internationally famous jazz players and composers) "acquainted me with the fact that I had to study to be something other than a kid wandering the streets with my horn."

The music being played in the clubs on the city's Central Avenue at that time was to become the stuff of legend, although the history of West Coast jazz pays scant regard to the music of the black musicians. The two best books on the subject, with 650 pages between them, concentrate on the lionised Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers, both of whom, like many of their West Coast colleagues, were born in the East. Neither book mentions Tapscott.

Tapscott took up the trombone and when he was called up in 1952 joined the Air Force Band, where he found several colleagues of future note like Houston Person and Billy James. "All I had to do was write and perform with the orchestra. It allowed me to develop because I had a forum for my ideas, top-quality people carry them out, and time, because we were often snowed in."

While in the air force he studied the piano. On his release in 1959 he joined Lionel Hampton's band. "I was dissatisfied with the experience because it was a sort of machine-like existence. When we got back to Hollywood I got off the bus and stayed home."

His piano studies were to prove invaluable. He was driving to a job shortly after he left Hampton in 1961 when he was involved in an accident. He got to the job but had to play his trombone with a split lip, several missing teeth and with a residue of tarmac stuck into his gums. He had to give up the horn and develop his piano playing instead.

Tapscott also expanded his activities as a composer and produced several powerful works. But he was unable to attract the attention of the local media. "Most of the writers that were here expected to be wined and dined for their efforts on our behalf." He decided to do without their help and instead formed the Arkestra in 1961 to play his music.

"The reason we took our music to the schools, churches and the streets was because we couldn't dictate terms to the music centre or the record companies. We performed weekly for 10 years straight at the Emmanuel Church of Christ, where Reverend Edwards would feed and find employment for those who gathered."

The Arkestra did record, but not until 1978. Tapscott had led the band and written a very effective set of scores for an album by the alto saxophonist Sonny Criss in 1968. He then shared an album with two other bands in 1969, but it was with the 1978 album Flight 17 that his recording career took substance.

He suffered a severe cerebral aneurysm in 1978 and was not fortified by the deaths of all four of the patients in his ward who had the same affliction. Afterwards he could move his fingers and he could play, but his other activities were restricted. "I spent a lot of time over the next three years staring out of the window at my avocado tree." The same year the Arkestra recorded The Call and performances over the next year by the Ugmaa Foundation made up a double album called Live at the I.U.C.C.

He formed his own record company, Nimbus, and recorded three more albums featuring him with small combinations in 1980 and 1981. He proved to be at his best when playing piano in his trio. Nimbus embarked on a series of seven solo piano albums recorded during 1982 and 1983. These were composed mainly of Tapscott's own obscure compositions and, although imaginative and consistent, the albums became repetitive and lacked excitement. His piano style used attractive and unorthodox harmonies, often dissonant in the manner of Thelonious Monk, and the time signatures he favoured were often similarly unusual. In 1989 he recorded The Dark Tree for the Hat Hut label and had another collection that year on Arabesque. His final recording, Thoughts of Dar es Salaam, was made in 1997.

In the summer of 1991 he made a rare excursion to play in New York at the Village Vanguard with his childhood contemporary the saxophonist Arthur Blythe and with the drummer Andrew Cirille, both now well established in their own right. The trip was a success and many of the New York teachers sent their students to hear him. The New York Times carried an enthusiastic review.

"Playing with Arthur Blythe was beautiful. The magic that began 30 years ago continued unabated in spite of the time and space that has separated us." In 1993 the arrangements he had written for the Sonny Criss album were revived for the Chicago jazz festival, with Arthur Blythe playing Criss's role. Tapscott played a brief tour in Europe during 1995.

In his later years he said, "You have to hurrah when you get this far. Maybe you should get an award for surviving tactics. I just thank God for all the people who have been around me and enabled me to contribute to the changing image of jazz."

Horace Tapscott, pianist, composer, trombonist and bandleader: born Houston, Texas 6 April 1934; married (nine children); died Los Angeles 27 February 1999.