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Passing It On To The PeopleCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Tapscott, HoraceThe death from cancer of Horace Tapscott has brought a further major loss in a year which has already seen the passing of several important jazz pianists. Tapscott was one of the most original jazz talents of the post-war era, but chose to follow an unusual career path which served to reduce widespread public awareness of his work in pursuit of something he felt was infinitely more valuable than his personal reputation.
Tapscott was born in Texas, but travelled north at the age of nine to Los Angeles with his mother, a pianist and bandleader named Mary Lou Malone. It is perhaps indicative of the importance that music would have in his life that their first stop in the new city was not the home they would occupy, but the local Musicians Union office.
His other major musical influence was Dr. Samuel Browne, a famous music teacher at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Browne exerted a crucial influence on the development of Tapscott and many of his contemporaries, including Dexter Gordon, Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss, and the Farmer brothers, Art and Addison. His insistence on high standards and the importance of both creating and sharing music rubbed off on Tapscott, who said that his association with Browne and his circle of gifted pupils left him with a sense that "music had a deeper meaning that related to people coming together", a belief he would put into practice in his own life.
Starting in school and then in the thriving jazz clubs on Central Avenue in the late-Forties, he played in less formal encounters with musicians like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, John Carter and Eric Dolphy, as well as performing with Gerald Wilson's Los Angeles-based big band. At this stage, his chosen instrument was trombone, and after developing his skills in a military band while serving in the US Air Force, he played with Wilson again in 1956, and subsequently toured with Lionel Hampton in 1958. A car accident at the end of the decade which left him with a weakened embouchure led to his abandoning trombone and taking up piano as his first instrument, and he quickly developed an original style.
He drew on a wide range of examples in forging that style, from the sparkling bebop lines of Bud Powell through Thelonious Monk's off-kilter harmonies to the high-energy dissonances emerging in the freer work of Cecil Taylor. African rhythms -- albeit employed in a highly individual fashion -- and unconventional time signatures added a further distinctive stamp to his work.
There is little doubt that Tapscott could have become a more significant "name" in the ferment of the Sixties jazz scene. Instead, he chose to take Dr Browne's admonition that "he would teach me as long as I would agree to pass it along" literally, and set about creating an infrastructure for musical creativity in the Los Angeles ghetto of Watts.
The principal vehicle for that task was his Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra, a large ensemble which he formed in 1961, and which is still active today. The Arkestra was part of a collective organisation which he called UGMAA (Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension), and was aimed at channeling artistic activity in the community into developing a greater sense of self-awareness and self-respect. The organisation began to receive some official funding following the riots in Watts in 1965, allowing an expansion of its activites.
The Arkestra and its associated organisation occupied the major part of Tapscott's creative attention throughout his life, and many important musicians cut their teeth in the band, including saxophonist Arthur Blythe, who was also featured on Tapscott's debut recording as leader in 1969, The Giant Is Awakened. The band seldom ventured out of Los Angeles, however, and did not make their European debut until 1995, preferring to serve the community by offering free tuition to literally hundreds of impoverished young people who wished to develop their musical talents, as well as providing an outlet for other branches of the arts, notably dance and visual arts.
Tapscott did make up some lost ground in the recording studio in the subsequent decades. He cut a sequence of solo piano records for the small Nimbus label, as well as a duet album with drummer Everett Brown, and albums with a trio and the more expanded canvas of the Arkestra. More recently, the pianist has recorded acclaimed discs for the Hat ART and Arabesque labels, featuring his work in trio, quartet and quintet settings. They provide a reminder of his qualities as a major creative musician, although his real legacy lay in his achievements within the community he served so assiduously.
He is survived by his wife, Cecilia, 9 children, 21 grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and one sister.