HORACE TAPSCOTT BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION, 4-7-14, Clemente Soto Velez Center, NYC. Part of the ensemble, left to right: Vincent Chancey, Ras Moshe, John Pietaro, Rosi Hertlein, Rob Brown, Matt Lavelle, Will Connell (photo courtesy of Arts for Art)
by John Pietaro
I am typing this as I listen to Horace Tapscott's 'The Giant Has Awakened', recorded in 1969. I am on something of a Tapscott mission, still coming down off of a wonderful gig last night where I was among the performers of an Arts for Art-produced Horace Tapscott Birthday Celebration at the LES space, Clemente Soto Velez Center. The event was led by the woefully under-recorded Will Connell, a serious veteran of the New Thing. We played several of Connell's compositions including "Inkata" which had been performed by the Tapscott aggregation in its heyday. On Will: now here's a man who not only played in Tapscott's Pan-African People's Arkestra but was its librarian and music copyist and aided with most every facet of this ensemble. He worked closely with Tapscott--who was a close associate of Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry--absorbing not only the man's music, and his theories but his unrepentant activism. Thankfully. It was in the period when the Civil Rights Movement grew into Black Power and the identification for peoples of color to recognize their own heritage and culture was vital.
The tumult of the late 1960s shook the inner-city areas with the scent of revolution in response to eons of oppressive racism, Jim Crow politics and coldly opportunistic capitalism. For the Black community that meant taking back the streets in their own name. This was reflected in dress, stance, speech, attitude and, most importantly the arts: indie theatre and dance companies sprang up as did filmmakers, painters, poets, journalists and of course musicians. And while the music exploded in various directions with funk, reggae, and soul, jazz---itself born of African musicians forcefully transplanted into this nation's hymns, wars, brass bands and folksongs---further decentralized. The jazz musicians of the day split in multiple fragments, creating a multitude of fusions and some took the music to its next radical level. The so-called avant garde of jazz expounded upon the music's origins in collective improvisation, offering up interwoven voicings of powerful instrumentalists at once rapturous, celebratory, explosive. But it also engaged in new music practices in composition and concepts coming out of the universities; the same colleges that once openly kept African American artists out had now begun courting them as professors, following legislative change and the need for Black Studies departments to become realized. So suddenly the bold pilgrimage into sound that Ornette and Sun Ra and Trane and Dolphy and then Shepp had forged, was now expanded further. And in a time of Black-identification into both the Black community and the culture at large, there is a need for special focus in education.
Horace Tapscott was just one of the visionary musicians who sought to create a school of sorts. Regional arts centers, all a part of the widespread Black Arts Movement, were found in many cities: most famous was Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), but there was also the Black Arts Group (BAG) in Philly and of course it flourished in Harlem under the leadership of Amiri Baraka and with musical activities by the likes of Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp, among others. Yet before these cultural institutions were fully founded, Tapscott developed his own Union of God's Musicians and Artists' Ascension (UGMAA) in Los Angeles. In 1961. Wow. Amiri was still LeRoi Jones and was years away from writing Blues People. Coltrane released 'My Favorite Things' that year. On the other hand, Ornette was several albums into his career and grabbed everyone's attention with his 'Free Jazz opus, and Sun Ra was busy with multiple records and the resultant furor over this New Thing was beginning to boil again. Tapscott saw the writing on the wall and recognized the need to carefully guide this new art of liberation. His bold activism led to years of blacklisting as a touring artist: the need to stay in one place was both thrust upon him and grew from his own desire to create a base from which to have his teachings develop.
The ensemble Tapscott developed was the principal voice of all of this, the Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra. With the inclusion of traditional African music into his compositional textures, as well as unfettered free improvisation, statements of pride and protest and larger and larger ensembles, the Arkestra allowed for the creative, spiritual growth of many in the L.A. area. Various editions of this band ran for decades and Tapscott, ever the teacher, a philosophic force for upcoming generations, stayed home to make this his mission. But the band and Tapscott's tutelage produced noted figures in the music including Arthur Blythe. And of course Will, who has lived in New York City for many years following his tenure with Tapscott and stands as an important link in this town's heritage of revolutionary arts. Son of a violin prodigy held back from a professional career as a concert musician, Will Connell Jr is a saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist who wears his influences well. This writer, back in the guise of percussionist in the current 'new jazz' scene has enjoyed a few interactions with the man, talking as much as playing. I have told Will he needs to write a book for his tales of Tapscott, the US Army, years of club gigs around the country, as well as his work with David Murray, Chico Hamilton, Philly Joe Jones and a pantheon of greats would be worthwhile reading. But its hard to fit lengthy projects into life in the face of music performance and a day job too (I know this all too well).
Last night's event in honor of Horace Tapscott's birth anniversary was some 15 years after the man's passing but the revolutionary energy extended well beyond any individual's lifetime. Music of militancy cannot fade away, not as long as we struggle against any repressive force. One could easily hear and see the effects of this music on the large ensemble Will Connell had gathered for the occasion: Will conducting and on reeds and flute, Rob Brown, alto saxophone, Ras Moshe on soprano saxophone and flute, Rosi Herlein on violin and voice, Vincent Chancey, French horn, Matt Lavelle, flugelhorn and alto clarinet, Steve Swell on trombone, Jesse Dolman, tuba, Larry Rollin on bass (and poetry), Jeremy Carlstedt, drums, while I played vibes and percussion. It was a powerful event which easily bridged the grainy pictures of 1961 to right now. And oh do we need more of this right now. This music, forged under fight-back, must again be a vehicle to awaken the sleepers, the complacent who have been fed the lies of manipulative cast system and a steady diet of 'reality' television, calories and beer. And if every radical artist begins with those immediately around him or her, we can see the concept of a revolutionary creativity grow again. To that end, Tapscott wrote just one year before he died:
"It is important that an artist living in the community recognizes that community with their art...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"