There’s a name engraved in the sidewalk along Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood: Horace Tapscott, the local pianist and organizer whose ensemble, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, gave many musicians their first gigs and helped heal a community impacted by racism.
“He saved Los Angeles when it comes to progressive music,” said the vocalist Dwight Trible, a performer with the Arkestra since 1987, in a telephone interview. “Because if you were going to get involved in that, you had to come through Horace Tapscott.”
Tapscott started the group in 1961 and maintained it until his death in 1999, at 64. Yet his name has never rung as loudly outside of L.A. He didn’t tour much and his albums of vigorous Afrocentric jazz weren’t released on mainstream record labels. A new compilation titled “60 Years,” out Friday, may change that.
The double LP set collects unreleased songs from every decade of the Arkestra’s existence, up to its present-day iteration with the drummer Mekala Session at the helm. Through a mix of home and live recordings, along with written track-by-track breakdowns from past and present members in the album’s liner notes, “60 Years” offers perspective on a group that’s largely flown under the radar.
Featuring Bill Madison on drums; David Bryant on bass; Lester Robertson on trombone; and Arthur Blythe, Jimmy Woods and Guido Sinclair on saxophone; the Arkestra started in Tapscott’s garage and grew dramatically over the following 17 years.
Tapscott founded the band and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, an artists’ collective, to provide more gigs for progressive jazz musicians living in L.A., and to get local children involved in the arts. His own journey in music began when he was young; his mother, Mary Lou Malone, was a stride pianist and tuba player and as a teen he played trombone locally before entering the Air Force.
After a tour of the South with the vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band, he wasn’t enamored with life on the road. During a stop in L.A., where Tapscott had lived since he was 9, he hopped off Hampton’s tour bus for good. “No one discovered I was gone until they got to Arizona,” he said in a 1982 interview.
“He was way more interested in feeling and sounding like himself with his friends, who were also really unique,” Session said on a video call from Los Angeles. Still, Tapscott’s mission stretched beyond music. During the Watts riots in 1965, he had the band play in the middle of the road on a flatbed truck. (Police responded, with guns drawn.) The group would often perform in churches, community centers, prisons and hospitals for little to no money, and at benefits for Black Panther leaders, drawing attention from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Trible came across Tapscott in the late 1980s as a singer in another group who wanted to work with the Arkestra. Two weeks after they performed separately at a festival, Tapscott offered an invitation. “He said, ‘I want you to come to my house tomorrow at 3 o’clock,’ and he hung up the phone,” Trible remembered with a laugh. “And just about every concert that Horace played from that time on, I sang with him in some capacity.”
Trible performed a fiery rendition of “Little Africa,” a rapturous gospel song, with the current version of the Arkestra at National Sawdust in Brooklyn earlier this month. The festive night of shouts and praise featured older and younger Arkestra members, and served as a showcase for Session, the band’s leader since 2018; Mekala is the son of the saxophonist Michael Session, who led the band before him.
In an interview before the gig, Session recalled joining the band as a teen. “I’m 13 and my first gig with the Ark is with Azar Lawrence,” he exclaimed, referring to the noted saxophonist and sideman to Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard. “It’s actually a very humbling thing to be a medium, a conduit for the ancestors trying to spread this vibration as far and as hard as possible.”
The idea for the compilation arose shortly after the band’s 50th anniversary, which came and went without much fanfare. The collective vowed to not let that happen for its 60th. “We were like, ‘We’re going to make a product that will introduce a bunch of people to this band in a way that’s comprehensive and concise,” Session said. “This is for us, by us. We wanted to present something to the people from the band that can directly pay the band and support the band, and then be turned into other projects. It’s the first time the Ark has been able to do that, really.”
Renewed interest in Tapscott and the Arkestra dates back at least seven years, when a new crop of L.A. jazz musicians — including the bassist Thundercat, the saxophonist Kamasi Washington and the producer and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin — helped the superstar rapper Kendrick Lamar create his avant jazz-rap opus “To Pimp a Butterfly,” shedding light on the city’s still-fertile jazz scene. Since then, various labels have reissued Tapscott’s work. But the music on “60 Years,” remastered from old cassettes and CDs, hasn’t been heard beyond the Arkestra.
Six decades since Tapscott formed the band, Session said the group’s mission hasn’t changed, and he vowed to continue pushing forward. “I want to get weirder. I want to get back to how Horace did shows at prisons and high schools and colleges for free,” he said. “We could sell out Carnegie Hall and then come home and do the same set for 50, 60 cats. I want that balance. It sounds impossible, but we can do it.”
Horace Tapscott founded the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension, an artists collective.