Pianist Horace Tapscott remembers being asked just one thing in return when he began studying under Samuel Browne, the late Los Angeles educator who guided the early careers of such musicians as trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Frank Morgan and Charles Lloyd as well as a host of others.
“I’ll teach you if you promise to pass it on,” the Jefferson High School instructor told Tapscott. And the adventurous pianist, who plays tonight and Sunday with bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda and drummer Fritz Wise at Maxwell’s in Huntington Beach, has been passing on what he learned for more than 30 years.
“When he said that, it just made sense to me,” Tapscott, 58, said in a phone conversation earlier this week from his home in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. “It’s the kind of thing that I enjoy doing. If I can’t say I’m doing something in the community, then nothing else matters. I don’t need to make albums, but I need to do this.”
To that end, Tapscott spent a Saturday afternoon last October at drummer Billy Higgins’ World Stage, just around the corner from Tapscott’s home. The pianist, a regular at the storefront performance space, where he coaches young players and usually gives a performance or two a month, was hosting a concert by the B Sharp Quartet, a group of aggressive young musicians dedicated to forwarding the jazz tradition.
As he spoke to an overflow crowd, the tall, imperially slim musician emphasized the importance of preserving what he calls “America’s classical music.” He explained the difficulties that jazz has faced over the years and how it mirrors difficulties African-Americans have experienced throughout the history of this country. The crowd, including a number of children, sat rapt.
Tapscott benefited early on from the kind of commitment he holds. Born in Houston, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1943. The first thing they did upon arriving, even before seeing the place where they would live, was to visit his new music teacher. “My mom was always pushing me,” he said. “She always made sure that I was in a musical environment.”
Tapscott, who was playing trombone at the time, lived around the corner from the black musicians’ union Local 47 (musicians’ unions were segregated in Los Angeles until 1953). It was there that he met composer, trumpeter and bandleader Gerald Wilson. He won a spot in Wilson’s band, even after a humbling audition in which Tapscott learned that, at 14, he wasn’t the consummate pro he thought he was.
“Gerald was the main musician in town to do that kind of thing,” he said. “He always had young people in the band. It was quite an important experience for me.”
After leaving Wilson’s band and doing an early ‘50s stint in the service, Tapscott joined the Lionel Hampton orchestra. There he was exposed to the kind of difficulties he recently discussed with the audience at The World Stage.
As the band toured the South, “we faced real heavy segregation, playing the chitlins circuit, going in the back door and setting up on stage. As long as the music was going over, things were fine. But as soon as we were through, there was nothing happening for us. It was out the back door. I got tired of the phoniness and couldn’t deal with it. I felt like I was playing in a closet and wanted to come out of it with the music.”
He returned to Los Angeles in 1959 and founded the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, an organization founded to promote the work of all artists in the community. The musical faction of the group was Tapscott’s Pan-African People’s Arkestra, a band that has included saxophonists Arthur Blythe and David Murray as well as composer, conductor and cornetist Butch Morris.
“The idea was to preserve the music that came out of the African-American community. So many great composers have come out of that tradition. I wanted to preserve it just as classical music is preserved.”
The Arkestra, which has ranged from 20 to 30 instruments, recorded one album, “Flight 17,” for the Nimbus label. But it is best known for its public performances. One of its strangest--and most famous--concerts occurred during the Watts riots of 1965. To get the music to the community, Tapscott and the band were playing, as they often did, from the back of a flatbed truck.
“We had 30 people with us, including dancers, singers and poets. There was a big crowd, and kids were dancing in the streets. It was the first day of the so-called riots, and the police pulled up with their guns drawn and made us stop. I’ll never forget that.”
Tapscott is looking to make the next edition of the Arkestra a marching band with 75 pieces. “We want to bring youngsters and elders together in the band. There are a lot of instruments lying around in the community, lots of people out there who have played and can still make a valuable contribution. We’ve got the music, and we’re looking to start in the spring.”
Just back from a series of lectures and workshops he presented at schools in Washington and Oregon, the pianist has also performed solo concerts in Dallas and his native Houston in the past few months. Snatches of Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Cecil Taylor can be heard in his music, but his involved, sometimes rollicking, sometimes pensive style is very much his own.
Although difficult to find, his seven-album series of solo and trio albums for the Nimbus label, released under the title “The Tapscott Sessions,” provides invigorating examples. In 1990, the Swiss Hat Hut label released “The Dark Tree,” a two-volume set recorded live at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood with bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Andrew Cyrille and the late clarinetist-composer John Carter.
As is his work at large, Tapscott’s compositions are often inspired by friends and colleagues in the community. One of his most-performed pieces, “Sketches of Drunken Mary,” is a good example.
“I wrote that back in the service,” he said. “The whole community knew her; she was a real figure. So one night on my cot I could just picture her walking while I heard these lines. So I got up and wrote them down. Sometimes a whole composition will come like that, all at one time.”
The Horace Tapscott Trio plays tonight at 8:30 and 10 p.m. and Sunday 4 and 6 p.m. at Maxwell’s, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. $5 cover and $7 minimum food-beverage charge. (714) 536-2555.