The RW Interview

Jazz Musician Horace Tapscott:


Revolutionary Worker #998, March 14, 1999

Jazz pianist Horace Tapscott dedicated his life to creating music for the people. In the 1960s and '70s his music grew out of and was closely associated with the struggle of Black people against oppression. Famous for loading his piano, and the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra, onto a flat bed truck and riding through the streets of Watts during the 1965 rebellion--because "the people needed music"-- Horace continued to live and work among the people and was deeply involved in the community arts scene in Leimert Park in South Central, L.A.

In the spring of 1996, RW correspondent Michael Slate talked with Horace about his life and music.

RW: You've stayed in the community as an activist and a performer instead of just concentrating on building your musical career. What has this meant over the years and what kinds of experiences in your life shaped your music and brought you where you are today?

HT: I was born in Houston. My mother was a musician and when she retired from that she started working for the school board as a cook. She made $9 a week. In 1942 she bought me a horn, a trombone. At first she had me on the piano--but in those days you could get beat up if you played a piano or carried a violin on the streets. Every Sunday my mother used to take us to a concert. It was a regular thing, you know; they always had like Marian Anderson and those kinds of things. Well, I was at one of those concerts and they were playing the William Tell Overture and then the part came where the trombones come in real macho and I pulled my mother's coat and told her I wanted a trombone. So one day she showed up and she had a horn in her hands. She had saved up money for weeks and bought me this horn for $40.

My stepfather came out here during what was supposed to be the so-called Renaissance for the Black man in getting jobs here in San Pedro. He got a job in the shipyards and that's what brought us here when I was about 9 years old. That was about the only job he could get at that time and there was a big migration of Black people from Louisiana and east Texas to L.A. at that time. Now when we got off at Union Station, the old railroad station, I thought we were going to my new house here in Los Angeles. But the first place my mother took us was straight down to Central Avenue. She stopped the car at 52nd & Central and I asked her if this is where I lived and she told me, "No, you're gonna meet your first music teacher."

I was about 14 when I hit the scene and that's when Gerald Wilson grabbed me off the street. I was walking home from school and I always had to walk down Central and go past the Black Musicians Union. And my mother always used to just drop me off at the union hall and I would just sit on the stoop, me and a bunch of other cats. We was just hanging out at the union and I had my horn and Gerald came and said "Hey man, can you play that thing?" And I'm a little cocky cuz I been practicing and it wasn't no stranger to me.

So Gerald took me on upstairs and that's how I met Melba Liston. The first tune I played was her tune and she said, "Hey, young blood, sit here." She was playing first trombone. And I'm looking at L.K. Johnson, John "Streamline" Ewing, Jimmy Cheatham. Up front was Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon in the reed section. Eric Dolphy and Ernie Royal was there, the bass player was Addison Farmer. All these cats were there and Gerald just threw me into the mix. And he kicked out this tune. Now this was the first time I ever seen any music written out like this. Downstairs Gerald had asked me if I could read music and I said "Shit yeah! I can read." But after that first note that was it, I didn't see nothing no more. That's how I got introduced into music, all them writers and players there.


RW: You told me that growing up under segregation and the whole social and political situation back then had a deep effect on you, your music and your development as a musician. Can you talk about this?

HT: When I first came to California and was going to school with white people--I had never seen white people like that before. The only white folks I used to see was when I went to the show. I never saw them in the community. I mean there was the bus driver. And each time I made a hook-up with a white person there was some kind of hassle.

For instance, while I was still in Houston my mother was taking me downtown on the bus and it was my first time riding the bus downtown and so I was excited. When we got on the bus my mother started heading right to the back of the bus by the "Colored" sign. Now there wasn't nobody else on the bus--there was the driver and one other passenger. And I'm walking past all these seats there so I sat in one of those seats in front of the sign. Now I was actually starting to get comfortable and what I remember distinctly was the bus driver's face in the mirror looking at us. And I remember my mother saying "Come here, Horace." And I said I wanted to sit where I was. My mother told me I had to go back and sit with her. I wanted to know why, so my mother told me about the Colored sign. And the way she put it to me was that I had to go back there because if I didn't they would get angry and hurt me but not because I was less than they are. I was really angry then.

Before that my first experience with a white man was in my yard. One night I was sleeping in bed with my mother. Now, I'm even younger than seven. I'm sleeping in bed and the window broke. Then a gun came through the window with a white hand holding it and it was being held up against my mother's head. Then I remember this voice saying, "Where's your brother? We're gonna kill that n*gger tonight." See, my uncle was a fighter back then and the police came to kill him that night. I was laying there under the window and I remember my mother's voice cracking and she said, "I haven't seen him. Don't shoot me." That has stayed on me.

When we finally moved here to main teacher at the time was Dr. Samuel Brown at Jefferson High and he told me, "Horace, I promise to teach you this if you promise to pass it on." I said "No problem!" I mean I didn't even know what I was saying. I'm like 17 years old and just into the music really heavy. But he made this statement to me to pass it on. He said, "I'll teach you everything I know if you promise to pass it on." And he introduced me to all these cats who would look at my music and tell me what they thought and what I needed.

RW: So you were in the middle of the legendary Central Avenue cultural scene with all kinds of things going on. And tremendous social changes were also beginning to bubble up in society--the struggle of Black people against racism and other oppression was intensifying. What effect did this have on the scene and on you and your music?

HT: One thing that happened that brought our attention to focus on things was Emmett Till being lynched. That turned me totally around. I mean this guy was "whistling at a white woman." Now by that time I had gone with a couple of white women and I kept thinking what does that have to do with anything. And when they showed that picture of him hung, man my mind just went KERPLOOKER! You dig? That brought out all that stuff in me again. But it couldn't be just hating white people cuz by that time I had grown and learned things. So I had to find out what was happening.

Cats from the Black Musicians Union would be working all up and down Central...but the part about Central Avenue where I got hip to what was happening was when Central Avenue started closing down. The real reason Central Avenue started shutting down was that the white movie stars--Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Martha Raye--would be down on Central Avenue listening to the cats. You dig? You know what that means--there was mixing going on, black cats dating white women.

So they started changing codes, building codes and all kinds of things. They started sending inspectors down to all these places. Now everybody and every place was against all the rules that they ever made downtown.... Now from the downtown point of view it was a bad thing that a lot of people enjoyed all this on Central Avenue.

So here was this Black part of town stretching from 12th & Central to Slauson and Central and beyond that to Watts. But that area on Central was really tight, with places all across from one another and nothing but live music up and down the street. Everybody got to hear one another. I mean cats would be on intermission and going across the street to hear each other, crossing the street and supporting one another. Now I was used to this, cats supporting each other. There would be little rivalries but the bottom line was the music. And I got to be part of that whole scene. Now with all the things starting to happen, all the segregation and Jim Crowism, I got to thinking again about preserving the music and putting the righteous names on it.


RW: Back then you played with a large group of musicians, vocalists, dancers, poets and actors and you formed the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra. People have told me it was like a big community show whenever you played. What was that all about?

HT: First I had the Underground Musicians Association (which evolved into the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension) UGMAA, which was all these musicians off the street that weren't gigging. I was about 29 when I formed UGMAA and it was to save the music, preserve the music. We formed UGMAA in 1961 to preserve music and the arts in the Black community. And it lasted 10 to 13 years with that name. We had poets, artists, actors, dancers and writers, too. We would always meet about three or four times a week to discuss different things. And we always had a house we would live in. Eventually J. Edgar Hoover got interested in us. I became one of the names on his list. I couldn't go home a lot of times. One time I was coming home and my wife gave me the sign to keep on going. There was two guys at my door who came to take me away. I had to stay away from home for a couple of days.

We started to form this group the first time, over there on the East Side at 70th & Central. We started out with four people and it grew from there. We started giving concerts, taking the music to the people so that we could preserve it. We used to play on street corners on flatbed trucks. We used to go to kindergartens. We'd raid schools. We knew teachers in elementary schools and they would invite us over so we'd be playing to the kids, doing poetry and dancing. Now all this was going on underground cuz it wasn't happening on top yet, you dig. We spent a lot of time in the community. We went to the old folks' homes and the hospitals and played. All of this was free, we didn't charge one dime. The money came out of our pockets for gas and different things.

We'd give concerts at junior high schools on Sundays, two Sundays a month. That went on for 20 years. And we went to a church, a Black church, for nine years. When we started, there would be just one person in the audience all the time and there would always be about 20 cats in the Arkestra and dancers and everything. And we be playing like it's 1,000 people out there. That went on for months and then after a while it was like three people in the audience. We kept the same thing going and the next thing we knew we had the place filled up. We had people coming from all over. We had white families from over in the Valley coming into Watts. That's when the sheriffs and them really went off, saying "What's going on here? These white cats got their wives and little babies over here and sitting up here just as comfortable as can be." They tried to do a lot to us then.

RW: When you endorsed the recent Unity Concert* in Nickerson Gardens you told me that Nickerson was one of the places where you and the Ark got started, that you used to play and hang out in the projects. Tell me a little about that.

HT: Nickerson Gardens was built when all the Black folks was coming up from Louisiana and Texas. They was building these places to have housing for all these families but they was building them all in certain areas like Watts. The police always terrorized people in the area. In those days they was just shooting Black people down every week. If you stole a bicycle you got shot in the back. The police and Chief Parker, they was real, real, real racist. Everybody knew that the police was racist and they come down and mess things up. That's when there was the kind of "casbah" attitude in Nickerson Gardens--you know, if you live in Nickerson Gardens and the police come looking for you and asking questions then nobody said nothing, nobody knew you, nobody knew nothing. Everyone supported each other and everyone knew who the enemy was.

And then the enemy would come down and try to mess up the things we was doing in Nickerson Gardens--the concerts, the music, the poets talking the word and riling things up. It was all about revolution and freedom mostly. And that was a threat to the establishment.... See the Arkestra was one of the only musical entertainment that played for folks down in Watts at that time.

We used to play in the rec hall in Nickerson Gardens. And some of the kids would hear us playing and then learn the instruments. We got a lot of cats to come into the band like that. We had room for dancers, actors, everybody. It was a real healthy atmosphere. The people who were doing it came to the people in the projects all the time. They took it where it belonged, to the people and kept at it until the people in the projects were inspired to do their thing, music, writing or whatever else. We had a lot of spoken word. People would come in and talk about how they felt about getting beat up by the police that week. They would talk about what happened and how it happened. That got dangerous to downtown.

Before we went to Nickerson Gardens we was already in Watts. We was down there cuz that's where Black people were at. We had something to do with everything that happened in Watts as far as getting to the people cuz that was like our mission. It was our mission to bring enlightenment to the community that didn't normally have a chance to get it. The establishment didn't send nothing down to Watts except the police. We didn't have nothing to do with the establishment cuz our whole thing was against the establishment. We--some of the ladies in the group--even opened up our own private schools in Watts to educate the kids. And we would go and visit these schools and talk and sing and dance.

This began like in 1963.... Things that were going on all the time were beginning to get questioned. Why were things like they were in the community?

Out of the UGMAA Foundation the Watts Writers Workshop came along. We opened up a place called the Mafundi Institute in the early days of Black Studies. We'd have classes and we'd invite cats who were on top of different things to come and talk.


HT: The words "Preserve the Music" were very important to us, especially at that time. See, we knew the time would come when all the other music of America would be coming to grab some more stuff from the Blues and call it Pop music. So what we was doing was we said that's ok! But we just want you to recognize where this music come from.

All the time I was having flashbacks to that bus scene and to that police breaking through my momma's window. All this was happening again and I was thinking, I'm raising kids now and what am I gonna do, bring them up in the same shit I went through. I had to think in terms of doing something different than what was going on. So I cut everything loose. I talked with my wife and started doing what I had to do. I decided to push the music and the art right here in this area, where it belongs.

I wanted Black people to appreciate their contributions to the culture here. I mean people all over the world knew the contributions Black people made but the Black people here didn't even know, it was kept hidden from them. Today I think these young rap artists got to know the contributions they make. It's to the point today that these young rap artists look to cats like me, in my age bracket, to always remind them that rap is the grandson of the Blues. The music started a long time ago. It began when we were first brought here and contributions have been added to the music ever since then.

You know when that guy they call the king of pop, that guy Presley, first came out, it was a goddam insult. It insulted the shit out of me. I wanted to know what was going on there. I couldn't figure it out, I kept thinking that this was the great white hope thing. I mean here it was taboo for people to listen to this music when Black people were playing it but here comes this white guy singing it and BAM you got rock 'n roll....

I had to get the truth told whether it was accepted or not. That was my life's thing and it still is. It's part of having a stake, making a contribution to this country. We came over here as slaves. We didn't ask to come here but we here now and we made a contribution in spite of all this crud they put us under. We have to be proud of what we did, but we have to know what it was we did. It's very important for me that our people, the young people, can dig themselves and the contributions they can make.


RW: How did the Watts Rebellion affect all this?

HT: You know, the police blamed the Arkestra for the riots. See in 1965 we was still on 103rd Street at this coffeehouse, a place called Watts Happening. We were out there rehearsing and playing and having classes. We had all kinds of people in these classes. We had people from the Panthers and from all these other kinds of groups like US and the Black Muslims. All these people came together when the music was being played.

Now something had happened down on Central already. The police had gotten into a fight with some cat and they had a rumble going on with fists and all. Then some cat said that there was a riot going on over at Will Rogers Park so most of these cats jump in their cars and head over to Will Rogers Park right up the street. Now we out there playing and dancing and the next thing we know, BAM!--through the back door the riot squad coming in. Now we playing and practicing and the police come in and cock their guns and put all the women against the walls. Now we kept on playing. The cop comes up to the bandstand and says "Cut that goddam music off." We kept on playing. Then he goes KAKOW and cocks his gun so I step back with my hands up and the band stopped. It got real quiet and nobody said anything. The cops was upset and cussing and yelling at us to get on the floor. I said, "What for? I'm not getting on the floor so you gonna have to shoot us here on the bandstand."

They backed off so we started playing again. Then we took it out on the streets and that's when it all really went off. This was the first day of the riots and the police was riding around with their microphone out and saying this is what's causing the riots. That's what they was telling them down at the glass house downtown. Then after that everything just went off. Cop cars were shot at and molotov cocktails hit cop cars.

Things started happening with the police then. They started following me home. They even put the FBI on me. Now this was when Motown was first starting to come together and so I'm thinking I'm gonna get to work for some Black musicians. But they cut me out. They wouldn't hire me. I had to get work ghostwriting for some cats. I couldn't get a gig cuz of my activities in the community and cuz of the jacket I was wearing.

RW: This was around the time that you wrote the song, "The Giant Is Awakened." Tell me about that.

HT: It was about 1964. It was about this African giant who was somewhere sleeping while all this shit was going on and all of a sudden something happened in the society that awakened him. And it was time to get up! "The Giant Is Awakened" was about the people here in this country and how things was happening to Black folks in this country and we had to wake up and start to protect and defend and push forward our beliefs and our thoughts and our dreams. We had to show other people, other races, that we are as strong as we would seem to other people. We had to show that we are together, that we have made great contributions here and that we have nothing to be ashamed of. That kind of attitude was all the time in each concert, in each thing that we did. We always pushed that. And we always made sure that cats had their children with them at all our concerts.

RW: You were closely identified with some of the most radical forces among Black people in the 1960s, in particular the Black Panther Party. What was the story there?

HT: I did two recordings with Elaine Brown. I knew Elaine before she became a Panther. Before the Panthers had organized the cats around here they had these four or five cats that was gonna be the Panthers. Then all of a sudden they started recruiting. And the Ark was the soundboard for all these things that was happening.

We got raided by the FBI one day. We were rehearsing and we had 35 cats in the band. Upstairs was Rap Brown and some of the cats from back East. They knew to come to the UGMAA house where they could listen to music and do what they wanted to do. Now we didn't know what they was talking about at their meetings cuz they upstairs and we downstairs. About two hours after the rehearsal started I took a break and I went home to eat. When I came back the whole house was empty and all the cats was in jail. They let them out later but they claimed they was looking for weapons at the house. They went upstairs and through the whole house.

At the rehearsals all the time we'd always see these cars on the corners following different cats. We had to be clean all the time cuz they was gonna pull you over.... They tried to put a FBI in the Ark but we busted him. I was down at the Muslim place when they got raided. They was blowing away the temple trying to get Malcolm and all them cats. Now we, the Ark, would be down there with Malcolm and all them people.

RW: You've been called part of the "underground of the underground." In part this means your music isn't as well known as it should be. But it also speaks to how your music was different in content and style too. How did your style develop, and what makes it different from what others were doing? What is the relation between the form of the music you play and the mission you've been on?

HT: I don't have a name for the style of music I play. I just call it African-American classics. I combine it all--blues, jazz, spirituals, soul. I get inspired for my sounds from the people. If someone asked me how I get my music I'd tell them I might be laying in the park, watching the rhythms that go down in the community. And from that you apply a sound in your mind of how things are rolling. I look at a scene of people like I might look at poetry. And I can hear lines when I look at certain scenery, when I see certain actions going on, certain smiles on certain people's faces under certain conditions. All of that has a lot to do with how I develop my music. That's what I gain my inspiration from. That's why the music is like it is because what I'm writing about is this community.

Sometimes a sound comes through different colors, maybe a color in the sky might demand a certain kind of tone soundwise. I got a system so I can look at a group of people and tell you what the bassline is gonna be like, or what the high part is gonna be cuz of the kids in the scene and they running. It has to do with rhythm, time and space and especially time and what's happening in the area. What the whole problem is soaks through everything I'm looking at.

Improvisation is in my music because that expresses what happens in the community. I mean, you see a couple of kids walking down the street and one might take off and jump in the street, jump over a couple of cars and come right back in line. So I have to improvise, I have to hook up with that motion, you dig. That movement, that sound, that feeling--this determines how the music is gonna sound in my mind. Improvisation allows you a lot of things. You're able to pick and choose and you can fill in much better. It wasn't like a planned thing to get a particular sound. It was more or less the contributions of different sounds I heard and trying to mesh them together. That's as close as I can get in explaining my music.


RW: How do you view the relationship between artists and the people?

HT: Your job as an artist in the community is to affect that community in some kind of way. You know you live in an area and you been hearing that it's all bad and you know it isn't so you want to bring out to your community that it's cool. You do that in several ways. In my case, being in music, you give concerts. You take the music to the people.

It is important that an artist living in the community recognizes that community with their art. If you a painter then you paint about the community. If you're a musician then you write music about the community. You know, a lot of times if you an artist then you go to an artist's community where you can be cool like in Greenwich Village. But if you stayed in your community, lived with the people and became part of that just think how much more you got to carry, how much more power has been given to you by the community. That's what gives you the power to do what you do as well as you do. Now for me, by being raised in segregated society I'm used to this cuz we all lived together, artists and all, cuz there wasn't no place else we could live. And it really is true that I get my inspiration and strength from the people.... I still say the heart of what I do is for the people who aspire to freedom.

RW: Can you talk some about your involvement with the new generation of young Black musicians, rappers and other artists coming up in the community?

HT: Here in Leimert Park, it's going on six years since this Degnan place opened up and we're providing a place for young players, artists, to hone their art. That's what this place is built for, and it started growing to a point where it started grasping people from all walks of life and from all over the city. And people come here in peace, they come to learn and they come to contribute. Here at Degnan we bring all the guys together, all the age brackets and all the different kinds of people. These are all Black people I'm talking about. And these Black youngsters here have learned how to be together without killing each other or stabbing each other.

Lester Robertson, my dead partner, used to say, "First there's shit and then there's the flower. There's concrete and then there is some grass growing out the concrete." We at the point of how do we keep these things, hone these plants up to the point where they blossom into something out of this rock, out of this shit that we in. We in a lot of shit. We in a hard place right now with our youngsters and our oldsters together.... We have young Black cats asking old Black cats like me questions like, "How come those kinds of things happen around here?" Or they ask us what we think of their raps. That's good. That's coming together. That's gonna make us strong.

The system says that's not good. "We don't want you strong. We don't want you to keep a job. We want to be able to kill you or put you in jail. We want to turn you into pipeheads cuz as long as you pipeheads you're cool. But once you stop smoking that pipe and start talking that other talk then you dangerous to me." These youngsters here are beginning to realize this all. That's what's dangerous to the system. This has always been dangerous to the system. Any time you have a gathering of Black kids together then that means trouble as far as the system is concerned. And if it don't act like it's trouble then they'll make it look like it's trouble and send in helicopters and the whole thing.

I wasn't surprised at all by the police invasion that night when they attacked Project Blowed.* It told me and proved to me that the race was getting stronger, coming together stronger. You had all these youngsters on the corner rapping and talking the way they do. Fifty feet away from them was some older guys rapping and 100 feet from them was some senior cats rapping. All these people out here together, the grandfathers and the grandsons. That's how I explain rap to the youngsters. That's what rap is, the grandson of the Blues. It ain't no different and don't let them tell you it is. It come out of the same roots, the same thing. Any time you hear the youngsters getting up rhyming, being rhythmic and talking about the issues, they got that from somewhere else. That didn't just happen.

RW: What are your thoughts on the 1992 L.A. Rebellion?

HT: We saw it coming.... Being here in the community you saw it from the ground up and you saw where it was going. Eventually it boiled over. And I thought the same as I did in the Watts Rebellion. The reasons why it happened still haven't been addressed correctly. Until they are, there might be more rebellions cuz you can oppress people for so long, stick your foot in their face for so long, they try to push it off. So I wasn't surprised nor was I overwhelmed by it.

You know when the police did their thing here at Project Blowed I heard a lot of people saying "Why are they doing that to these young folks?" I hadn't heard that in a long time. It use to be, "Oh, these young folks, why they doing that?" We all out here giving to these youngsters cuz we believe in ourselves and we want to see them grow. The thing that tipped my mind in the last 15 years was all this Black on Black crime. And for no point. People out here fighting about somebody else's land that they don't even own. Their turf? It's not their turf, it don't belong to them.

That kind of attitude, that kind of thinking pattern has to be conquered. A lot of cats are dead or in the joint but that can't be the only reason that this attitude is not around no more. There is a new generation coming up and we can put it into them a little better than we did before.... People don't understand unless they are part of something. If they aren't living it they have no understanding of it.

The old man told me, the maestro said, "I'll give it to you if you promise to pass it on." And that's still the thing. It's still there. I'm still in the process of trying to pass it on."

* The Unity Concert was a concert held by residents of the Nickerson Gardens housing project. Police and housing authorities conspired to shut the concert down, but they were exposed and defeated.

* In the Leimert Park district, there's a packed house at the multimedia center called Kaos Network. On Thursday nights, it becomes Project Blowed, a showcase for freesytle rap. In January 1996 after weeks of surveillance, the police attacked Project Blowed. They tried to shut it down by attacking the crowd and beating and arresting people.

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