By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #998, March 14, 1999
Horace Tapscott had one of the warmest smiles in the world. There were a few things that were guaranteed to bring on that smile--good music, good people, a good cause and a good joke. He especially loved it when all of this could be brought together. If Horace had been able to make it to Washington High School way down in the southern tip of Los Angeles on Sunday, February 28, he wouldn't have been able to stop smiling. More than a thousand people, including more than a hundred musicians, poets and artists, turned out to take part in a very special commemoration--"A Tribute to the Life & Music of Horace Tapscott, a Man of the People." Sadly, Horace died shortly before midnight the night before the tribute--after months of fighting against cancer.
Horace created some truly beautiful music. It was based on the people, their hopes, their happiness, their suffering, and their resistance to oppression. His music filled us with joy and inspiration to stand up against the way things are.
Horace told me once that his music was like paintings of his community and all the people in it. As I watched people come in to the tribute it was like seeing Horace's music come to life. They came from Watts, from Crenshaw and other parts of South Central, from the East Side, the West Side and the Valley. A few even made the trip from the outlying suburbs. All nationalities and all ages--some had gone to high school with Horace, some were neighbors. Some had played with Horace for many years and some were teenagers who had just heard Horace's music in the weeks before the tribute. And the thing that tied us together is that we were all there to honor Horace Tapscott and his legacy.
As one person at the tribute put it, "He dedicated himself not only to the art but to art for a good reason. Horace said that if the art does not uplift the people, if it doesn't move the people forward then it is no good. He dedicated his art to the liberation of his people and all people.... If his legacy is anything, it is that he used his art to help change society from bad to better, from negative to positive. That was Horace Tapscott."
Leon Mobley and Da Lion, an African-American percussion group, led a high-energy procession and drum call into the theater--carving out space for the celebration. The tribute began at an incredible high point with a surprise performance by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. In town for a gig at a Hollywood jazz club, Sanders heard about the tribute and joined other jazz legends on stage--drummer Billy Higgins, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, and bassist Dr. Art Davis. Sanders hadn't heard about Horace's death until he arrived at the theater and his solo mourned the loss of his friend and sent out a thick rope of music that tied the audience together for the rest of the afternoon.
Each of the performers that afternoon revealed another aspect of Horace's life. The Watts Prophets talked about their performances in parks, community centers and churches with Horace in the 1960s. A message to Horace and his family from Geronimo ji Jaga brought love and respect, noting that Horace had been very active in the victorious battle to free Geronimo.
Horace came into the Los Angeles music world at the tail end of the famous Central Avenue jazz scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Clora Bryant, a young trumpeter during the Central Avenue days, was a life-long friend of Horace's, and she performed a raucous rendition of "What a Wonderful World," a song she and Horace had played together many times over the years. As Clora finished her song, the Central Avenue All Stars, many of whom played in Central Avenue clubs back in the day, came onto the stage for their set.
For weeks, Horace had been really looking forward to the tribute--even picked the location himself. This was typical Horace--no big time club or concert hall--he wanted to be in the neighborhood, taking the music to the people--letting the people touch the artists and the artists touch the people.
Horace often spoke about how important it was to him to preserve African-American culture--to fight for the respect it deserves and to pass it on to the newer generations. As the Washington Prep High School Jazz Band turned in a very moving performance, I looked around at the numbers of young people in the audience and on the stage and saw Horace's successors. But Horace wasn't only about preserving and passing on--he was deep into the creation of art that was always on the edge and always pushing that edge further out. Teaching youth in the projects and the neighborhoods how to do this was at the heart of Horace's mission in life. Drummer JMD, who performed with his group Underground Railroad, spoke from the stage about how in his art he was trying to bring together hip-hop and jazz. JMD told how older jazz cats and young hip-hop heads thought he was crazy. But when JMD went to Horace, Horace listened, smiled and said, "How can I help?"
When Horace's grandson, Cabel Tapscott, and his jazz trio took the stage, I remembered Horace telling me that he had always tried to get his grandson, a drummer, to sit in with him at some performance. Cabel was a little nervous about this but had resolved that he wanted the opportunity to perform for his grandfather at the tribute. The Cabel Tapscott Trio would have put a huge smile on Horace's face.
The week leading up to the tribute almost became Horace Tapscott week, as members of the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra appeared on the radio every day--sometimes two or three in the same day. Hammered together by a committee of artists, friends and fans of Horace Tapscott, including the Artist's Network of Refuse and Resist!, the tribute mixed visual and musical powers. On stage, Leimert Park's Museum in Black created an African arts theme. At the entrance to the theater a sculptor set up a piece entitled "Tapscott." A Leimert Park painter created a large portrait of Horace for the tribute and asked people to write messages on the canvas. Horace was also honored with a number of awards: the Artists' Network of Refuse & Resist! announced the establishment of the annual Horace Tapscott Cultural Resister Award and presented the first award to Horace himself.
The whole tribute really built towards a once in a lifetime performance by the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra--the major collective of musicians, poets, singers and dancers that has been the main vehicle for Horace's work over the years. Formed around 1961, the Ark was the band that Horace loaded up onto the flat-bed truck during the 1965 Watts Rebellion. The Ark was the home Horace invited people into to both learn and perform their music and art. Since its formation, more than 300 musicians and other artists have performed with the Ark--including youth from the neighborhoods and people who became world famous musicians like Arthur Blythe and David Murray.
The committee planning the tribute made a special effort to reach out to as many members of the Ark, past and present, as they could find. Close to 40 musicians--including two drummers, at least four percussionists, four bass players and dozens of horn players--joined poet Kamau Daaood, dancer Karen MacDonald, vocalist Dwight Trible and the choir Horace had been working with over the last couple of years, the Voices of UGMAA (the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension). The Ark performed Horace's works "Lino's Pad" and "Little Africa" and Horace's version of "Motherless Child." It was one of the most heartfelt performances I've ever seen. And somewhere in the middle of the performance I could visualize Horace with a huge smile on his face, conducting the Ark, dancing and gliding across and around the stage.
As Horace's music washed out over the theater I looked around. Those who knew and loved Horace seemed to be deep into their own memories of the brother. When the Ark ended its performance there were a whole lot of wet eyes and the audience gave the Ark and its missing conductor a prolonged standing ovation.
The music conjured up special memories for me. In the brief period I knew Horace we became friends. I spent many an hour sitting in his rehearsal space talking about everything under the sun--from music to animal stories to the struggle against police brutality. I remember how happy Horace was when we pulled together the first ArtSpeaks concert. And when we fell two hours behind schedule very late that night--and came up one drum kit short--I remember apologizing to Horace and him just looking at me, smiling and saying, "Hey man, this is a war, let's go with what we got!" Horace and the Ark went on to mesmerize the entire audience that night, many of whom had never heard anything like Horace's music before. I remember how shortly before the first National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality I stopped by Horace's house, and he grabbed me, put me in his car and drove me around the neighborhood to gleefully point out the graffiti announcing the Day.
I will not forget how hard Horace struggled during the last nine months. He seemed to go from injury to injury but tried to never let it stop his work. By midsummer his right hand had swollen up and he really wasn't able to use it. He told me that right after his hand was injured he had to play an entire gig in New York City with his left hand. In the middle of his performance he looked out at the audience and saw that many were in tears--and this display of love really moved him.
Horace had been scheduled to perform at ArtSpeaks 1998 and I remember the day he told me that he couldn't do it--stressing that he wanted to be there and do whatever he could to make it a success. We made a special presentation to Horace during ArtSpeaks this year--honoring him for his contributions to the creation and promotion of the culture of resistance. More than a thousand people gave him a roaring standing ovation, and as we stood on stage I could see him tearing up. Later, he told me that this was a special moment in his life--because when he looked out at the audience it was so overwhelmingly young and this let him know that he was doing what he set out to do.
Sunday, at the end of the tribute, standing at the stage, lost in memories, I looked up: a young brother from one of the projects in Watts was bounding down the aisle, a huge smile on his face, his eyes dancing. He was unbelievably excited as he told me that he had never in his life heard anything like the music the Ark played and that it completely blew his mind. And as the brother spoke I could see Horace's face, that twinkle in his eyes and that smile grown bigger and brighter knowing he had indeed passed on the vibe. This is a memory I'll keep forever as we say a sad goodbye to Horace Tapscott, an artist for the people and a true cultural resister.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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