The Last Days of Horace Tapscott

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Promises do not always survive the harshest seasons of our lives. They get trampled under the foot of the real world. And then young men’s vows turn into minor trophies, packed away with other things of youth.

Papa made a promise to his music teacher and mentor when he was just a boy: I will pass on the gift. At 64 he was still keeping it. For this fidelity he paid a price. And for this fidelity he was deeply loved.

All over Los Angeles, and well beyond, there are stories about Horace Tapscott, the legendary pianist and composer, the man they call Papa. Ask the musicians, the poets, the artists, the dancers and they will tell you the things he did in the service of that one promise:


“I was 18 years old,” says Kamau Daaood, poet laureate of Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district, and co-founder of the World Stage, a club and performance space. Tapscott’s band was playing. “Somebody told him there was a young guy in the audience with some poetry. Next thing I knew I was performing onstage with them. That’s the kind of thing he would do. . . . That simple act opened up my life tremendously.”

“I grew up in the projects,” says Michael Session, Tapscott’s horn man. “The music is definitely what kept me out of jail. He was aware of things like that, hooking cats up to where they would leave the criminal aspect of their life.”

“One day he called me and he said he had a song he wanted me to sing,” says vocalist Dwight Trible. “And I thought, ‘Why would he call me?’ I was extremely nervous about it. I came to find out Horace is not looking for you to be another Horace; he’s trying to open you up so you can be more of yourself.”


As news spread earlier this year that Tapscott was suffering from brain cancer, people with those kinds of stories set themselves in motion. In Leimert Park, where Tapscott had long been a beloved leader, the artist community organized a concert in his honor, to take place the last Sunday in February. The artists he’d mentored and others he’d played with would perform. It would be a display of love and respect, the harvest of a lifetime.

A couple weeks before the concert, inside his Crenshaw home, Tapscott was lying in bed, pillows propped behind him, graciously greeting a reporter who had come to interview him. It was months since he had lost feeling in his hand, forcing him to play a gig in New York one-handed; that was the first sign that something was wrong.

Even motionless, his hands demanded attention. They were large, the fingers long and purposeful, as if specially made for the use to which they had been devoted. Tapscott was thin, his voice was like the tide, strong peaks that receded into a gravelly near-whisper. But the memories--of his life in segregated Houston and Los Angeles--were strong, full of color and sound.


He remembered the pastor in the 10-gallon hat who would walk the neighborhood, stopping at noisy bars and juke joints, visiting people who wouldn’t visit him at church. He remembered the craftsmen who made tables and anything else his mother needed. He remembered the teachers who made sure the children learned.

“The people that I met and grew up with, they taught me a lot of things, just by what they did for each other,” he said. “The people loved each other. They weren’t afraid of each other.”

Music was there from the beginning. The cost of entry when his mother invited people over was a song. The day the family arrived here from Houston, she took him to meet his new music teacher--even before the boy saw their new house.

Samuel Browne elicited the promise that would undergird Tapscott’s life journey from boy to man to elder:

“I’ll teach you,” he said to a young Tapscott, “if you promise to pass it on.”

Less than 45 minutes into the interview, talking had left him winded and tired. It is heresy for a reporter to miss a deadline, but it is also blasphemy to rush a dying man in order to meet one. So the the reporter would have to wait.

Tapscott’s wife, Cecilia, was motion to his stillness. She answered the calls from well-wishers, opened the cards, coordinated the stream of visitors. She fluffed pillows and brought tea and got Tapscott up and out on the days when he was strong enough. She called the reporter to report: Today is a good day to continue, or today is not good.


On any day, there were others who could finish telling Papa’s story.

With his talent, they said, he could have hit worldly heights. Instead he stayed and made “community artist” a noble profession. He played at community events, prisons, schools, on the Black Panthers’ albums of the early ‘70s--and lost work because of his activism. He created the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, an organization that brought together, musicians, poets and other artists. Art is contributive, he would say, not competitive.

In the 1960s he created the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra, which played the work of otherwise unheard African American composers and also trained musicians. There were experts and novices, men and women, young and old, musicians, poets, singers. The Arkestra was created as a vessel of memory, meant to house the culture of a people. This belongs to you, Tapscott would say to the audiences.

“We were so enthused,” said Michael Session, who heard the music as a youth and later joined the Arkestra, which still performs. “This is where I learned how to say, ‘I love you’ to a guy. The Ark taught the spiritual aspects of your being and everyone else’s. We all learned to love life, the music, the spirit and each other.”

Days later the interview resumed, and Tapscott made it clear he had no regrets about forgoing celebrity for community.

“You live long enough to see some of the manifestations,” he said, his voice airy.

He had witnessed, he said, the birth of a vibrant generation of new musicians. You see them there at the World Stage, he said with pride in his voice. But on this day too, the voice weakened before he had finished.

“I don’t want to rush it,” he said, “because I have certain things I’d like to say.”

During the next interview, the curtains of the window behind his bed were pulled back, letting in a view of a lush backyard. A cool breeze blew through an open side window.


Surviving as an artist was possible because he and Cecilia worked together, he said. They grew vegetables in the garden. Their parents helped. Cecilia worked for the county, and sometimes he stayed home with the children. He was a ghost arranger and writer for other artists.

Word of mouth was key to his getting gigs. It got him work in Europe, where he was well-received in places like Italy, Holland and Germany. Shopkeepers who had seen him play would emerge from their shops with gifts of shoes and hats. There were offers of pianos. All because of the music.

Now, he knew some were worried about what was to come. Sometimes he joked--”Don’t stumble with my casket”--because he did not want to see tears in their eyes. It’ll be all right, no matter how un-all right it seems, he’d tell them. “They don’t see me around here crying and slobbering and sniffing and carrying on,” he said, his voice a sly smile.

The cats wouldn’t allow it, anyway. Cats come by talking and joking about the usual things--gigs they played, old girlfriends--as if he were only sick. You not dying, they’d tell him. You sick. “I appreciate that,” he said.

Now his tribute was only two days away--Sunday afternoon. He would not address the audience. While the artists performed he would remain backstage, thinking about what he would have told them if he could.

“I like to let them know I really, really appreciate through the years them supporting me and my music,” he said, his voice strong. “How they followed me, how they believed in what I was doing. That’d be about the only thing I could tell them. That’d be the most [important] thing that I could think of: ‘If it had’na been for you, it would’na been no me.’ ”


The next night--before this article could hit the newsstand or the tribute concert could take place-- Horace Tapscott passed away.

Sunday afternoon arrived, and he was not backstage. But it was very hard to say he was not present. The auditorium at Washington High School pulsed with energy as musicians, poets and singers proclaimed the beauty of his life, lifted up Papa and all he shared with them.

It must be easier to leave this life when you know that some part of you will stay. Peace must surely come in that final season when you know the promise has been kept. And that because of your faithfulness there are heirs to the family treasure, people who cherish it as you did, who will pass it on as you did.

“I assured him,” Kamau Daaood said, “that as long as I am alive, the work would continue. All of us were taught that. There’s some work that’s got to be done. That’s why we’re here to develop as spiritual beings and to help others. Horace’s concept was always getting us to remember how important we are to each other.”

On Daaood’s poetry and music CD “Leimert Park,” Tapscott plays piano on a piece called “Ancestral Echoes.”

. . ..Honest work is our worship we place like a bed of gold before the Infinite and those now gone from sight.


In the wind we learn that the die-hards do not die.

They only echo throughout the universe as light. . . .

So this is not a requiem. There are others whose hands will safeguard precious things, others whose lives are a study in submission to the same spirit that guided Papa’s life, others who have made the promise. What flowed through him now lives in them. It is the straightness in their backs as they live the lives of artists in a world that does not always cherish them. For their fidelity they will pay a price. For their fidelity they will know love.

This is the harvest Tapscott lived to see. Ultimately there is no greater tribute. They have given Papa eternity.