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.