Requiem for The Phantom: marking a decade since the passing of the legendary Horace Tapscott

Posted by Mark Beaver, February 17, 2009 12:00am | Post a Comment
I remember lying on a couch in my room in Oakland, sometime in either 1989 or 1990. Afternoon light was pouring in my window and I was in a hypnogogic state, somewhere between waking and dreaming. My mind was occupied with the vision of long and dark brown hands holding what looked to be a piece of blue glass. The agile hands turned the glass over and over again, and with each turning, facets appeared, polished and refracting light. The glass was becoming more and more ornate and I remember thinking that it was "perfecting." Suddenly, I sat bolt upright, realizing that I was having a visual experience of the music I was listening to at the moment: The title track from the recently issued LP by Horace Tapscott, Dark Tree.

Tapscott was working a theme on the piano, turning it over and over, and every time it came around, there was more beauty in it. And every time it came around, there was less of anything superfluous. The theme, under his long, dark fingers, was "perfecting."

Released again in 2000 by Swiss Hatology label on double limited edition CD with its companion volume, Dark Tree 1 & 2 is a document of what I have come to consider one of the most important jazz quartets of all time. Featuring Tapscott on piano, John Carter on clarinet, Cecil McBee on contrabass and Andrew Cyrille on drums, it is a fleeting glimpse into not only a rare recording by this astounding group, but a rare small group recording for Tapscott, altogether.

Born in Houston, Texas in 1934, he moved with his musical family to Los Angeles when he was 9, where he was steeped in the vital jazz scene around L.A.'s Central Avenue. He studied piano as well as trombone with teachers who also taught the young Eric Dolphy and Frank Morgan. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force Band, he returned to L.A., and eventually joined Lionel Hampton's Big Band as a trombonist.

Back in Los Angeles through the sixties, Tapscott's work in the emerging Avant Garde was gaining more attention. In 1968, he worked with Sonny Criss, providing all of the arrangements and composition for Sonny's Dream (Prestige).

His first recording as a leader, The Giant Is Awakened, also featured the debut recordings of saxophonist Arthur Blythe and bassist David Bryant.

Tapscott was outspoken about racial discrimination and his role as a community organizer, social critic and his perceived connection with the Black Panther Party (he arranged and conducted Elaine Brown's controversial Seize The Time album) got him blacklisted from the music industry through most of the early '70s.

Increasingly vital as a community organizer and musical force in Watts and surrounding communities, Tapscott formed the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, based out of Watts' Immanuel United Church of Christ. Over the years, his work with the Arkestra and the U.G.M.A.A. (Union of God's Musicians & Artists Ascension) would involve and develop some of L.A.'s most brilliant composers, vocalists and performers, including vocalist Dwight Trible, poet and vocalist Kamau Daaood, bassists Roberto Miranda and Henry Franklin, saxophonists Azar Lawrence, Sabia Matteen, James Andrews, and flautist Adele Sebastian, amongst scores more.

The '80s and '90s saw more recording work for Tapscott, as his importance gathered greater international recognition. He recorded his aforementioned Dark Tree recordings as well as multiple solo and group recordings for the Nimbus label and a duo of astounding documents, Aiee! the Phantom (1995) and Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam (1996) for the Arabesque label.

There are two fine books on the market that document not only Tapscott's life, but the Los Angeles Arts Community to which he was so committed, both by Steve Isoardi.

Horace Tapscott passed away from lung cancer 10 years ago this February 27. I consider myself blessed to have seen him perform at least once, in a series of duets concerts organized at Oakland's Koncepts Cultural Gallery in the late '80s. If I remember correctly, his duet partner was the legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille.

People who know me know that I love jazz. I find it both amusing and sad that, when asked who my favorite jazz musician is (an impossible question to many), I answer, "Horace Tapscott." No hesitation. My reply is, more often than not, received with a confused silence. Too many have never heard the name before.

He was the pinnacle, the jewel in the lotus. Tapscott was a man of community and family, he was a craftsman who worked and worked at his art, turned the unformed blue glass of his life into a perfected and multi-faceted jewel that sent refractions of sheer beauty across timespace. His work reverberates today, a decade after his passing, and it will for a long time to come. And all of this was accomplished without the energy provided by what we classically call "fame." I am always humbled when I reflect on his life and work. May peace be on his soul.

Kamau Daaood reads his poem for Horace Tapscott:

I leave this column with a copy of the artwork and sample from a recent release by Build An Ark, entitled Dawn. It is a labor that bears the stamp of Horace Tapscott's legacy, featuring many musicians who worked directly with him during his years leading the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra, people fed and sheltered under the outstretched limbs of the Dark Tree. It's beautiful.

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Hatology (1), Jazz (150), Arabesque (1), Steven Isoardi (1), Henry Franklin (1), David Bryant (1), Everett Brown Ii (1), Sonny Criss (2), Cecil Mcbee (2), Lionel Hampton (2), Build An Ark (1), Kamau Daaood (1), Adele Sebastian (1), Sabia Matteen (1), Azar Lawrence (2), Roberto Miranda (1), Dwight Trible (2), Elaine Brown (1), John Carter (1), Arthur Blythe (2), Frank Morgan (1), Eric Dolphy (6), Black History Month (134), Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra (1), Nimbus (1), Prestige (1), Avant Garde (24)