Progressive Pianist/Composer Horace
Tapscott Dies At 64
by Drew Wheeler
Horace Tapscott, a pianist and composer whose
unique approach to avant-garde jazz earned him
legendary status despite his lack of name
recognition, died of cancer in Los Angeles on Feb.
27. He was 64.
Tapscott's idiosyncratic style of modern jazz was
not neatly categorized. It drew harmonic elements
from multiple eras of jazz, while keeping a
pervasive sense of rhythm that may have run
against the grain of the experimental avant-garde.
But Tapscott's music was also inextricably tied in
with activism for his Los Angeles community.
"He just nurtured the neighborhood," said
Tapscott's manager Corine Hunter. "He pulled kids
off the street like Roberto Miranda, who was about
to get hung up in gangs. Horace pulled him in off the
street at the age of 19 and told him, 'Hey, boy, play this
bass.' And he's been Horace's bass player ever
since." Tapscott's involvement in his community
took the form of his musical ensemble, the
Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra, and activist arts
association Union of God's Musician and Artist
Horace Tapscott was born in Houston in 1934, and
moved to Los Angeles in 1945. His mother, Mary
Malone Tapscott, was a singer, pianist, tuba player
and band leader. His mother's musical
associations brought a young Tapscott in contact
with Local 767, the black musicians' union, where
he would meet local luminaries like Gerald Wilson
or Buddy Collette. He attended Jefferson High
School in Los Angeles, where his music teacher
was Dr. Samuel R. Browne, who had also taught
Frank Morgan, Art and Addison Farmer, Dexter
Gordon and Sonny Criss.
After graduating high school in the early 1950s,
Tapscott married Cecilia Payne and played
trombone for Wilson, but subsequently joined the
Air Force. Stationed in Wyoming, he played in the
Air Force Band. Upon his return to Los Angeles,
Tapscott joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, with
which he toured into the early 1960s. (On one road
trip to New York, Tapscott looked up his old friend
Eric Dolphy, who introduced him to John Coltrane.)
Tapscott was injured in an auto accident, that led
him to give up the trombone, and focus exclusively
on the piano. It has also been said that he was
happy to retire from the road after some unpleasant
experiences as a black musician touring the South.
Back in Los Angeles for good with his wife and
children, Tapscott formed the Pan-Afrikan People's
Arkestra and UGMA. One of his earliest musical
associates was saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
"Through some other friends I had met him," said
Blythe. "We were young men together, we were
studying together. We were seeking out the
music." Other notable Arkestra members include
David Murray, Butch Morris and Azar Lawrence.
Blythe remembers Tapscott for "His originality. His
integrity. What he stood for with the music, his
honesty about that. That was probably one of the
main things, his honesty and his ethnicity about
the music . . . We dug the history of American
Tapscott belonged to no obvious "school" of jazz,
according to Blythe, but rather "He was a rounded
musician. He used to play piano for Diana Ross at
one time. He played all sorts of music, it wasn't
just the avant-garde. Sometimes that happened,
people put him in that bag, but he played rhythm &
blues too . . . He was an accomplished
musician--reading and writing and orchestration,
band-leading. He had that leadership quality about
And Tapscott led his Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra
into the cultural life of Tapscott's Los Angeles
neighborhood. During the destructive Watts riots of
1965, Tapscott and the Arkestra played from a
flatbed truck in an attempt to calm the seething
neighborhood. But Tapscott would find that his
activism had its price.
"Some of the members in the Pan-Afrikan People's
Arkestra were also Black Panthers," said Hunter.
"And Horace ran this
organization called UGMA.
UGMA was an umbrella for
artists, poets, dancers, all
the creative people in the
minority neighborhood. He
took it upon himself to find
employment for them. He
had a venue where they
could come and express
their art on a 24-hour basis .
. . So with the upheaval and
all the stuff that was going on then, the police were
always harassing them. And so word kind of got
out that he was a militant and blah blah blah blah
blah, and so Motown stopped calling him for
recordings. He got blacklisted in Los Angeles.
Nobody would hire him to work."
"The '60s thing was just one entity of his life and a
very small portion of it," said Hunter. "But Horace
was always dedicated to his community. Reaching
the people in the community was more important to
him than becoming an overnight success." For a
brief time, he taught at Riverside Community
College, but found that he didn't fit in well with the
strictures of academe.
One interested listener to Tapscott's music was the
critic and author Stanley Crouch, who likened his
music to that of "Andrew Hill and Herbie Nichols
and Hasaan Ibn Ali, the way those guys played. It
was all kind of like a spin-off of Thelonious
Monk--he was kind of the connecting figure in all of
And yet to Crouch, Tapscott sounded only like
Tapscott. "He played in New York and played at
the Vanguard a couple of times," recalled Crouch.
"He played so much piano, and played so many
different ways. He had such a wide book--he really
didn't sound like these guys in New York played . .
. " As opposed to the pervasive influences of
McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, said
Crouch, "His thing was bigger. It had elements of
stride piano and Duke Ellington, whom he had
followed around. He told me when he was in the
Army in the early '50s, Ellington was traveling the
Midwest and he figured out a way to follow the
band around when it was doing these
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Tapscott recorded
sporadically. He was first featured on two albums
by trombonist Lou Blackburn, then on Criss'
highly-regarded album Sonny's Dream. His first
solo album, The Horace Tapscott Quintet, was
recorded in 1969 for Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman
label and featured Blythe. He released a series of
solo piano and Arkestra albums on Nimbus
Records throughout the '70s and '80s, as well as
three sets for the Swiss Hat Art label that featured
John Carter, Cecil McBee and Andrew Cyrille. In
the 1990s, he released two albums for the
Arabesque label, Aiee! The Phantom and
Thoughts Of Dar Es Salaam.
In 1994, Tapscott took his Arkestra on European
tour with Blythe back in the band. In 1998, he
returned to New York for a series of nights at the
Iridium with Billy Hart and Ray Drummond, and a
Lincoln Center concert, but found on his arrival that
he'd lost all feeling in his right hand. He canceled
the Lincoln Center gig, but kept the Iridium dates,
playing principally with his left hand.
"It was probably the most heroic exhibition of
aesthetic engagement and grandeur that I've ever
seen in person," recalled Crouch. "What he
did--impaired like that--the way he played his runs
with his left hand, it was unbelievable. If you didn't
know what was happening, you would've just
thought, 'Gee whiz, what an original way of playing.'
Really, it was so soulful and swinging . . . I didn't
really know that he was messed up. I just thought
that he had experimented his way into this other
kind of way of playing the piano that was pretty
amazing. Then when I discovered that he was
making the most of what was available--and quite a
most it was--I was actually staggered, really. I had
never seen anything on that level . . . Witnessing
him in that situation made it very obvious that he
was part of the elite of the instrument and the idiom
that he worked in. Only a giant of the instrument
and the music could have done what he did--would
have known how to make it work."
Tapscott's last public performance was back home
in Los Angeles in September of last year,
conducting his Arkestra. The next month, he had a
seizure, which led to the discovery of the cancer
that would claim his life in a matter of months.
Although he was too ill to attend, he was given a
Jazz Patron Award from the California Music
Awards in a ceremony at Los Angeles club the
Troubadour, where he was often booked during his
"We're in the process of forming a Horace Tapscott
Foundation," said Hunter, "which will house his
archives and carry on the music and try to keep
doing the things he was doing through the Arkestra
members." The Arkestra will continue, although no
decision has yet been made as to its leader.
"From my point of view, what I feel and know about
him," said Blythe of Tapscott's legacy, "his
contribution was coming from a positive place. He
was like a luminous-type person. He was a very
Tapscott is survived by his wife Cecilia, a sister
Robbie Byrd of Dallas, as well as nine children, 21
grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. A
memorial service for him is scheduled for March 29
at the Catalina Bar & Grill.