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ALL THAT JAZZ

Tapscott Group Will Offer a Rare Treat

September 27, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a nice symmetry to the appearance of Horace Tapscott's Pan African People's Arkestra at this Sunday's 20th annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival. The pianist and grass-roots musical activist's large ensemble appeared at the first Watts Towers festival in 1976.

Joining them in the daylong event will be groups led by saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Buddy Montgomery and trumpeter Mark Isham. The eight-man trombone choir Bone Soir will appear, as will gospel-jazz duo Allen & Allen and vocalist Mary Stallings. But the rare performance from Tapscott's home-grown orchestra is the highlight of an exceptional lineup.

Since its founding in 1963, the Arkestra has included the likes of saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe, respected composer-conductor Butch Morris (all now based in New York) and any number of Los Angeles-area musicians, as well as a host of dancers, singers, poets and visual artists. Though the group will consist of only 12 musicians for this performance, most of its music is written for 30 pieces.

"The original idea was to bring all the talented people from the various art forms in the community together in a common expression," says the 62-year-old Tapscott. "We wanted to grab hold of the community and make it realize all the artists we have here."

In the early days, the group would often play from the back of a flatbed truck, taking its music, as well as dancers, actors and poets, to different parts of South-Central. That's what they were doing in 1965 when the Watts riots broke out.

"They were fighting in one part of the city," says Tapscott, "but down on 103rd Street, the cats had stopped fighting and were listening to our music. Kids were playing in the street and people were dancing. One policeman put his microphone up to the band so they could hear it downtown. I've heard lots of stories that say there's a police blotter somewhere that says our music started the whole thing."

The Houston-born Tapscott, who started out as a trombone player, moved to Los Angeles in 1945 and, unlike several of the Arkestra's better-known veterans, never left. "I'm always asked about why I'm still here--like we live in some kind of a diseased place--why I never left L.A. for New York. I knew what I was facing here. It's the proving ground. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Recognition from outside his hometown is finally coming. Tapscott traveled to New York's Lincoln Center earlier this month to present portions of his four-part suite "Impressions of the Ghetto," which he wrote on a Lincoln Center commission. Though performed with a trio, the suite has been scored for his large ensemble.

Earlier this year, New York-based Arabesque Records released Tapscott's first recording in several years, "Aieeee! The Phantom," to wide critical acclaim. The label has a second trio recording in the can, set for release next April. Arabesque also confirms that it plans to record Tapscott's full Arkestra in the near future, though no date has been set. (Two previous Arkestra recordings on the Nimbus label, dating from the late '70s, have long been out of print.)

Tapscott cringes at the suggestion he's getting more notice on the East Coast than he is in his home base, or that West Coast jazz is something less than its Eastern counterpart. "This music needs to be redefined as American music, not East Coast or West Coast music. If we start breaking it down into regional categories, we'll have to go all the way back to the South and start all over again."

Actually, says Tapscott, he's encouraged by the current vibrancy of the local scene. "We have more places to perform, more showcases, than we've had in a while and the young musicians are just crawling out of the walls to play them. And the word is out; when I'm in New York or Paris, they're all asking me about Leimert Park (location of the World Stage, 5th St. Dick's and other performance venues) and what we've got going on there.

"That's what makes life so fulfilling, that you've lived long enough to see it all happen. Now when I walk by [composer-bandleader Gerald Wilson's] house and [onetime Max Roach/Clifford Brown saxophonist Harold Land's] house, I see that they're still smiling. Things in L.A. may not yet be where they should be, but we're moving ahead, we've gone to a place beyond the crossroads."

* The 20th annual Watts Towers Jazz Festival will be held at the Simon Rodia Watts Towers, 1727 E. 107th St.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. The Watts Tower Day of the Drum Festival precedes it on Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Both events are free. Information: (213) 847-4646.

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