The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles

By Steven L. Isoardi
University of California Press

By Ken Waxman

Pianist Horace Tapscott’s 30-year stewardship of Los Angeles’ Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra from the early 1960s until his death in 1999 wasn’t tied to any attempt at fame or self-aggrandizement.

Instead, as Steven Isoardi points out in The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles, Tapscott organized the band and its ancillary offshoots to fit snugly within the largely impoverished and blue collar African American community that was his home from the time he arrived in LA as a child, following his 1934 birth, until his death. “(His) relationship to his community was organic”, writes Isoardi, adding that “the community was an extension of his family”.

At the same time, the charismatic Tapscott wasn’t interested in undemanding, feel-good melodies. Although built on powerful vamps and riffs and frequently employing vocal choruses and word poets, the Arkestra’s music was sophisticated and defiantly non-commercial, encompassing extended compositions and atonal free soloing.

Outlining and analysing these contradictions is the heart of this volume. Isoardi traces the ups and downs of an organization – first named the Underground Musicians Association (UMA) and later the Union of God’s Musician and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) – and orchestra whose activities paralleled the evolution of Black Los Angeles.

Born in the Civil Rights era, Tapscott conceived of the orchestra as a vehicle to fill a cultural void brought on by covert segregation, institutional police brutality and inadequate educational opportunities in his community. Operating in gang-and-drug- ridden areas such as Watts and Central Los Angeles, the Arkestra’s uplifting music was multi-cultural and more Afrocentric than Black Nationalist. Non-African-Americans occasionally played with the band and its offshoot small groups. Unlike Sun Ra, whose East Coast band shared the Arkestra moniker and its self-help philosophy, Tapscott was never as monomaniacal or dictatorial as Ra. He also never adopted the other Arkestra’s extraterrestrial and mystical leanings.

First among equals, his conception more closely resembled that of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The band book included charts from many of the musicians, yet it was he who pushed members to play beyond their limitations. Mixing experimentation and discipline, at one point he banned music stands. “He wanted you to play from your heart and not from the paper,” one soloist remembers.

During the decades of the Arkestra’s existence it attracted literally hundreds of Californian musicians who wished to elevate their improvisations beyond accepted local norms. A few eventually migrated east to acclaim in the New York-centred jazz scene. The pull of the band’s music and its community commitment was such though, that they would sometimes return to play with the Arkestra.

Additionally, the idea of working towards a common goal was what kept so many equally talented players home. Eschewing the cutting contests that characterize many ensembles Tapscott’s goal was a fusing of egos and building up of players’ confidence to reach unified objectives. According to one associate Tapscott often said: “no one can play better than you, but you.”

Paid performances for the Arkestra were few and far between, with gigs at local parks, hospitals, church halls community centres, prisons and educational institutions predominating – “I think we played every UC or state college in California,” one member recalls. That era came to an end when UGMAA finally gained non-profit status. Headquartered in buildings that usually included theatre, dance and film companies, visual artists, and even a print shop – necessary to create those all-important gig flyers –Tapscott was given collaborative scope for his compositions.

Analytically The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles emphasizes that the circumstances of the Arkestra’s growth involved more than the musicians themselves. As benefits its Los Angeles’ origin, affiliated with the band was a cast of characters large enough to populate a Hollywood blockbuster. There were street-savvy poets and writers who performed with the band and created neighborhood-oriented film and theatre pieces in which the Arkestra contributed music. Just as generic were risk-taking small entrepreneurs who found regular performance spaces to feature the band, plus angels who supported the band both monetarily and emotionally.

Reflecting another Tapscott aphorism, the phrase displayed on all Arkestra discs was “Our music is contributive rather than competitive”, and in performance, the bandleader would often not identify a composition but describe it to the audience as “this is one more you wrote through us”. To give the reader an idea of the Arkestra’s improvisational power, the book includes a 68-minute CD, featuring eight previously unreleased tracks by the big band, Tapscott-led combos and vocal ensembles.

Moreover, it could be said that the true mark of the pianist’s musical commitment to, in his words, “pass it on” is that the Arkestra and the UGMAA Foundation still exist and thrive seven years after his death. While Tapscott’s extensive archive is now housed in the University of California Music Library, the UGMAA is happily still a force in its chosen community.

In MusicWorks Issue #96