"To begin with," pianist and composer Horace Tapscott says, "it was about preserving the music and to strengthen the musicians in their craft. A lot of these guys were dying, and I had talks with them during my coming-up days and they put bugs in my ears . . . There were things that I didn't like that was going on with the musicians, so I figured that if we could just start building our kind of group, maybe we could preserve some kind of respect."
That was the acorn of an idea that took root in Los Angeles 26 years ago and grew into the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and its organizational wing, the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension Foundation. The Ark and UGMAA gradually became the focus of much community artistic activity, attracted youngsters from Watts to participate in workshops and join the band, produced concerts at churches, schools, parks and street corners, and eventually documented their sounds in a number of albums on the Nimbus label.
Tapscott will perform in the District Curators Spring Jazz Series at d.c. space Saturday. Soprano saxophonist Jesse Sharps, lead reed player in the Arkestra for a decade, will be featured; Steve Novosel will be on bass and Steve Williams at the drums.
We know that, while New Orleans was the principal center for the earliest form of jazz, the idiom was coming together in other locations in the southern part of the United States as well. Nor did bebop, the initial guise of modern jazz, leap forth full-blown one evening in 1945 from the bandstand of Minton's, a Harlem after-hours musicians' hangout -- it was nurtured in many a back-of-the-bus jam session on the road with the big bands in the late 1930s and early '40s. The same apparent independence was characteristic of emerging jazz developments in the early '60s, when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music was making its fledgling sounds in Chicago and the Arkestra and UGMAA were coming together in Los Angeles.
Tapscott, a major West Coast innovator since those days, spent his earliest years in Houston, where he absorbed the blues and spirituals, and in the late '50s he was a member of Lionel Hampton's band. He now performs in concerts abroad, where his solo piano albums are better known, and was recently appointed to the Jazz Fellowship Advisory Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts Music Program. When he made his D.C. solo piano debut in the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium last year, he had not performed in this area since traveling with Hampton.
"It was rich," Tapscott says of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1940s. "They had clubs up and down the street, and I lived on Central Avenue in the midst of everything." Hardly into his teens and already studying piano, trombone and baritone horn, he checked out bands rehearsing at the Black Musicians' Union Hall a few steps from his home and sneaked into clubs to hear the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Later he caught up with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and at 15 was playing in a local combo. "I was too young to go to a lot of gigs," he says, "but I was tall, so I slipped in."
"It took us about 15 years to get recognized," says Tapscott of the community organization and musical unit he founded in 1959. "There was no money, but it helped build up some kind of courage and pride. The whole idea was to stay together, to get over, so we went through three generations of musicians. It's still working, it's still active, and it's still the goal to reach 75 pieces by the end of the century."