Horace Tapscott - Biography

Horace Tapscott (April 6, 1934 — February 29, 1999) was a giant of forward-thinking jazz. That’s why it’s so rewarding yet terribly frustrating to wallow in the intense, inspired, and resolutely strident power of his wildly distinctive piano performances, only to realize that for even the most informed aficionados of the genre, his name may only register in vague passing. Tapscott was reasonably well-documented by the somewhat obscure Nimbus label, but he was conspicuously underappreciated by the public, and criminally neglected in the official annals of avant-garde jazz. Tapscott pounded the keys with a percussive genius, and could toggle effortlessly from precise, big-band orchestration to raucous, free-improv glee without breaking a sweat. Surely one culprit is geography. Tapscott was born in Houston but he spent the majority of his professional career in Los Angeles, where jazz assumed a decidedly “cool” posture. LA artists never really impressed the East Coast cognoscenti, who still consider the global Alpha City a cultural backwater. Count that up to vintage New York parochialism and chronic, jazz-critic myopia, but it’s their loss. Tapscott was an epic talent, and within his discography there are moments of bold grandeur that any serious fan of avant-garde jazz should seek out, explore and cherish. 

Tapscott grew up in a musical household, and when his family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, he found himself in a nexus of post-war creativity. After the war, LA was the New New World, where the sky was the limit, especially for a gifted multi-instrumentalist, and Tapscott absorbed music like a sponge. By the early 1950s, he had secured a seat as a trombonist in Lionel Hampton’s big band, and was soon touring the East Coast. Tapscott relocated briefly, befriending John Coltrane and fellow Angelino Eric Dolphy, before returning to Los Angeles to redouble his efforts as a pianist. In the early 1960s, he took the initiative — and some cues from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — and founded the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, which evolved into the Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra. The latter would be an intermittent yet vibrant entity for over 30 years, and the array of names that passed through its illustrious ranks includes Butch Morris, Jimmy Woods and David Murray.

In the mid-1960s, Tapscott teamed with saxophonist Sonny Criss on the latter’s The Birth of the New Cool (1966 Prestige). Tapscott’s scores and arrangements garnered critical praise and the opportunity for a solo debut of his own. The Giant Is Awakened (1970 Flying Dutchman) is a fitting title; within tracks like “The Dark Tree,” “Niger’s Theme” and the eponymous opening track, Tapscott  dexterously juggles a bop-tinged experimentation that speaks volumes for his abilities as a composer, musician, and bandleader. Unfortunately, the promise of his debut didn’t translate to sales, and by the mid-1970s, Tapscott was scrounging for venues, playing to enthusiastic yet discouraging modest audiences in the standard array of dingy clubs and church basements — with an occasional weekly gig at the Troubador on Sunset. Still, he continued his work as a community activist and managed to present new Arkestra performances, interspersed with spoken word, poetry, and dance. 

Perseverance paid, and in the late 1970s, Tapscott got signed to Nimbus, which ensured a productive period throughout the 1980s, and some long-overdue recognition. Some of Horace Tapscott’s most powerful efforts for Nimbus include: Flight 17 (1978 Nimbus): The Call (1978 Nimbus); At the Crossroads (1980 Nimbus); and Dial B for Barbara (1981 Nimbus); true devotees will also want to investigate The Tapscott Sessions Vols. 1-8 (1982-1984 Nimbus), a massive series of solo recordings that displays the man’s genius in the raw. There are also some notable issues from European label Hat Art: Kimus #4 (1989 Hat Art) and The Dark Tree Vols. 1 & 2 (1989 Hat Art). Tapscott eventually landed a deal with acclaimed label Arabesque Jazz, and in the 1990s got to tour Europe and enjoy some sizable crowds and hard-earned critical gush. One of his final efforts is the extraordinary Aiee! The Phantom (1996 Arabesque Jazz), which teams him with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Horace Tapscott may have flown under the cultural radar, but he flew with elegance and verve and an inventive gusto that was second to none.

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