Horace Tapscott, Randy Westin: Cures for the Festival Blues

With the JVC Jazz Festival and the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival wrapped up, it seems fair to conclude that June in New York has been officially designated as Jazz Burnout Month. (The mind’s eye sees Rudy Giuliani making the announcement into a sea of hungry mikes.) Even the festival post-mortems in The New York Times and The Village Voice had a tone of Sunday morning rue, a ticking off of weekend excesses that were more plenteous than fun. Sure, there were highlights, like Brazilian import Caetano Veloso lending his touch of rarefied class to the JVC, but generally speaking, so much music, so little necessity.

With the exception of trumpeter Wallace Roney and a pickup band of all-stars pointlessly reprising Miles Davis’ immortally off-the-cuff Kind of Blue session for the JVC fest, nothing I heard in the past month was actually bad. But the consumption of so much accomplished and unexciting music gave rise to indigestible and normally unacceptable thoughts. That instrumental jazz often makes indifferent concert music. Without the visceral immediacy of the pop vocal or the sustained compositional logic of a classical performance, things can get pretty squirmy during a routine jazz set that’s taken from the altered state of a late-night club and a few drinks and plunked down in Carnegie Hall, or God help us, the South Street Seaport Atrium, where the Bell Atlantic festival chose to squander the last of its Knitting Factory-derived bohemian cachet.

In the 40′s, jazz happily shed its role as dance music to embrace the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of small-ensemble bebop. A half-century later, with the bop code well cracked and available to anyone with music school tuition or a spare Jamey Aebersold video ( Anyone Can Improvise ), the conventional format of trading solos based on familiar chord changes or modes has come to sound like functional music that doesn’t quite have enough function. Somehow, craft for craft’s sake doesn’t often give rise to thoughts of dancing, not at the Bell Atlantic or JVC, anyway.

A pretty turn of events, then, when the annual municipal celebration of the music you love sends chills down your vocation. I did find a measure of redemption, though, and at the Knitting Factory of all places, after the Bell Atlantic festival had lumbered to a close. It was a benefit concert in honor of Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott, who died this past February at the age of 64. The musical lineup included some artful downtown irregulars like pianist Uri Caine and guitarist Marc Ribot thrown together with a couple of crusty, hard-blowing saxophonists who’d cut their teeth on the 60′s, Arthur Blythe and Sonny Simmons, a more imaginative bridging of racial, generational and stylistic divides than anything I’d encountered in a month o’ jazz festivals.

The portrait of Tapscott that emerged from the remembrances of his colleagues was no less compelling. He was one of the great invisible men of jazz, near-invisible in New York, anyway, because he’d chosen to stay home in South Central Los Angeles, playing, often for free, at schools, parks, on flatbed trucks, instead of sensibly pursuing his modest measure of fame here as one of the excellent pianists of his generation. “There were periods when he could sustain himself as a musician,” one of his longtime associates, Los Angeles bassist and educator Roberto Miranda, told me recently.

“Other times, his family and the community sustained him because we knew who he was.” Tapscott’s musical vehicle of choice was a group he founded in 1961, the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the Ark for short, which at any given moment had about 30 musicians and 30 singers as well as a few poets and rap artists thrown in for seasoning. The Ark was not built to carry him to mainstream acceptance; that, by the mid-60′s, was more or less out of the question when Tapscott’s South Central musical activism began attracting Black Panthers, Black Muslims and other elements not esteemed by the F.B.I.

“You know, the police blamed the Arkestra for the [1965 Watts] riots,” Tapscott recalled in a 1996 interview with the Revolutionary Worker . According to Tapscott, the initial fracas between black Angelenos and the police had already broken out when word got out that rioting had spread to Will Rogers Park, where, as it happened, the Ark was in full musical swing. “Now we out there playing and dancing and the next thing we know, bam! -through the back door the riot squad coming in … the police come in and cock their guns and put all the women against the walls.… They backed off so we started playing again. Then we took it out on the streets and that’s when it all really went off.”

Doubtless during the height of the 60′s “free jazz” movement, the idea of the uncompromising black jazz artist as social prophet got a bit overdone, especially in the hands of white lefty writers who thought they’d died and gone to Marxist musical heaven. What is remarkable is that Tapscott could hew to his vision of himself as a man of his community, long after the vibrant Central Avenue jazz scene he’d discovered in the 40′s had turned into a slum and the rhetoric of the 60′s had turned into today’s economic opportunism.

For New Yorkers, who rarely if ever saw him play, the evidence that his mission wasn’t entirely quixotic rests in a small discography that will soon be the last word about Horace. There are his albums on his own Nimbus label, not so easy to find, and the albums often regarded as his masterpieces, 1989′s The Dark Tree, Vol. 1 and 2 , on the European label Hat Art, as well as two recent supple and wonderfully swinging albums on the New York indie label Arabesque Jazz, Aiee! The Phantom and Thoughts of Dar es Salaam . If Tapscott’s 60′s résumé brings to mind a “radical” soundtrack of banging keys and crushed chords, then the albums will surprise. His keyboard approach is encyclopedic, mixing elements of stride, bop and beyond, all brought off with a harmonic unpredictability that puts him in the company of the great piano composers: Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols, Sun Ra. At Tapscott’s final New York performance, last year at the Iridium, the brain tumor that would soon kill him had paralyzed several fingers of his right hand. He was still able to wring so much sound out of the instrument, one peer in attendance, pianist Randy Weston, was reportedly moved to tears. “I knew Horace was great,” Mr. Weston told me recently. “I didn’t know until that night just how great.”

Mr. Weston is the other great inheritor of an Ellington-to-Monk pianism that brought a startling measure of dissonance and abstraction into the jazz flow. As Tapscott passes into mythic memory (and the ongoing work of the Arkestra), Mr. Weston, at 73, is still going strong. (Mr. Weston performs with his African Rhythms group at the Iridium, July 27 to Aug. 1, and a solo show on Aug. 6 at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park bandshell.) For the recent benefit concert at the Knitting Factory, he was there in force, at 6 feet 6 inches tall, placid and commanding at the piano bench, like that figure from a children’s book, the mountain that turns into a man. As always, his touch was intuitive, and his sound enormous, the piano seemingly enfolded by ringing overtones.

Because Tapscott mostly stayed put in Los Angeles, and Mr. Weston, when he wasn’t traveling the world, was rooted in his musical community in Brooklyn, the two pianists saw each other only sporadically. But, Mr. Weston said, they recognized each other as brothers and allies. “We strengthened each other,” he said, “because we weren’t the most popular people around.” Mr. Tapscott found himself on the front lines of the racial struggles of the 60′s; Mr. Weston was on his own mission to restore a sense of black identity by forging a musical connection to Africa. “The whole system-the school system, Hollywood-made it seem like a place to be ashamed of,” he said. So the pianist constructed his own compensatory mythology in which Africa stands for everything spontaneous and untethered about American jazz. “When I hear Monk,” he said, “it’s like hearing a pure African approach the piano.”

Beginning in the early 60′s, Mr. Weston made regular trips to the continent. For three years, he ran a music club in Tangiers where he could put to the test his theory that in Africa lay the roots of the world’s most profound vernacular musics. “One night we’d have Congolese singers,” he said, “then I’d bring in a blues band from Chicago, then the Gnawan masters of Morocco.” Now as we enter the millennium, Mr. Weston’s once ostracizable passion for Africa could pass for the conventional wisdom of today’s “world music.” But he’s still unstoppable on the subject. He’s even latched onto a theory that it was Africa that gave rise to the ancient Chinese musical tradition, an idea that’s the intellectual centerpiece for his most recent album, 1998′s Khepera (Verve). Whatever the limitations of the musicology, the music is wildly ambitious and quite sublime, a layering of African percussion, Chinese pipa, the howling tenor sax of Pharaoh Sanders and Ellingtonian swing.

The enormity of Mr. Weston’s and Tapscott’s mandates-reclaiming the past, duking it out in the present-lends a gravity to their playing that dispels jazz business as usual. They are my cures for the festival blues.