Songs of the Unsung

The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott

Songs of the Unsung

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 46 b&w photos Published: February 2001

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Music > Jazz

Songs of the Unsung is the autobiography of Los Angeles jazz musician and activist Horace Tapscott (1934–1999). A pianist who ardently believed in the power of music to connect people, Tapscott was a beloved and influential character who touched many yet has remained unknown to the majority of Americans. In addition to being “his” story, Songs of the Unsung is the story of Los Angeles’s cultural and political evolution over the last half of the twentieth century, of the origins of many of the most important avant-garde musicians still on the scene today, and of a rich and varied body of music.
Tapscott’s narrative covers his early life in segregated Houston, his move to California in 1943, life as a player in the Air Force band in the early fifties, and his travels with the Lionel Hampton Band. He reflects on how the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (the “Ark”), an organization he founded in 1961 to preserve and spread African and African-American music, eventually became the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension—a group that not only performed musically but was active in the civil rights movement, youth education, and community programs. Songs of the Unsung also includes Tapscott’s vivid descriptions of the Watts neighborhood insurrection of 1965 and the L.A. upheavals of 1992, interactions with both the Black Panthers and the L.A.P.D., his involvement in Motown’s West Coast scene, the growth of his musical reputation abroad, and stories about many of his musician-activist friends, including Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, Buddy Collette, Arthur Blythe, Lawrence and Wilber Morris, Linda Hill, Elaine Brown, Stanley Crouch, and Sun Ra.
With a foreword by Steven Isoardi, a brief introduction by actor William Marshall, a full discography of Tapscott’s recordings, and many fine photographs, Songs of the Unsung is the inspiring story of one of America’s most unassuming twentieth-century heroes.


Songs of the Unsung is one of those special autobiographical narratives that comes along once in a while, and successfully captivates its reading audience with the complete candor of the person telling the story! This is an important sociological document, for it tells the life of Horace Tapscott, one of the most unique figures in the jazz of Black Los Angeles. . . . What is most unique about Songs of the Unsung is that it reveals a man who not only lived jazz, but contributed to it in meaningful ways, and was a walking masterpiece of the personal philosophy he advocated. He lived to teach, help others, perform, create. Horace Tapscott succeeded at each. Songs of the Unsung lets the reader see how he did it. Songs of the Unsung is excellent reading. This book entertains and enlightens at the same time, and is a fine reading experience!” — Lee Prosser, Jazz Review

Songs of the Unsung offers a glimpse into the life of a jazz musician who resolved not to abandon the place where he started out—the streets of South-Central.” — Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

“[A] raw, intimate autobiography of L.A. free jazz pianist, trombonist, and composer Tapscott. . . . [T]his retrospective will enable jazz enthusiasts to revel in the life of a unique and talented underground musician. . . .” — Publishers Weekly

“[Isoardi] preserves Tapscott’s part-preacher, part-hipster patois—in which, for example, he inflects the word ‘out’ to describe free jazz, police brutality, injustice, good luck, violent rage, unexpected generosity, spontaneous affection and insanity. Songs of the Unsung is a witness to hope, one man’s determination to create art of lasting value and the power of music to connect people. It is, in the profoundest sense, ‘out’ ” — Jim Gerard, Washington Post

“[O]ffers fascinating insights into Tapscott’s work as a composer and bandleader, as well as his memories of L.A. during the turbulent 1960s.” — Aaron Cohen, DownBeat

“[T]his engaging reminiscence reveals Tapscott as both a provocative musician and an iconoclastic community advocate. With a nontechnical narrative that flows like a novel, this memoir constitutes an appealing and informative document of musical and social history for readers at all levels.” — A. D. Franklin, Choice

“A valuable firsthand account of American music and culture that will make a welcome addition to any collection.” — Library Journal

“Horace Tapscott . . . emerges as an eternal symbol of all that is noble in the music in transition community. This highly advanced theme emerges from a detailed life history that is nothing short of stunning. . . . Songs of the Unsung is an important statement in the philosophy of improvised music. Highly recommended.” — James D. Armstrong, Jr., Jazz Now

“Isoardi has done a fine job of preserving Tapscott’s voice—the narrative is fluent, conversational in tone and packed with both colourful incident and tart social commentary. . . . [A]s a gripping account of a quietly heroic life, and as a rare document about the West Coast’s black cultural underground, Songs of the Unsung is essential reading.” — Graham Lock, Jazzwise

“Page after page, Tapscott offhandedly knocks down stereotypes about African-American communities, like pines behind an eruption. . . . Tapscott’s controversial narrative, filled with stories about ‘the cats’ and their ‘out’ behavior is fascinating. . . . But more valuable than the book’s entertainment quotient is its map of possibilities.” — Greg Burk, LA Weekly

“Tapscott stuck pretty much to the straight and narrow and his story is one of music as embedded in community. . . . Tapscott, a thoughtful man and a fine storyteller, has a tale more interesting than the usual fare, and along the way he touches on numerous tales of racism, the merger of the black and white union locals in Los Angeles, reflections on the studio scene and drugs, the various travails of the black community in LA, and many of his musical and educational endeavors over the years, both in and out of the Arkestra. Isoardi’s editing . . . still preserves much of the flavor of someone just sitting back and talking. Anyone interested in the plights of the modern jazz performer, and of course jazz in LA, will find this book of great interest.” — Stuart Kremsky, IAJRC Journal

“The details and local lore of Songs are beautifully rendered, and Tapscott’s modesty and perseverance are qualities to behold.” — Hua Hsu, The Wire

“Topics such as food drives, grassroots educational activities, and the sharing of resources are all inextricable from the discussion of the Arkestra’s music, which makes this book quite a bit more substantive than the run-of-the-mill jazz bio from a broader cultural standpoint.” — George Drake, Signal to Noise

"Songs of the Unsung . . . sets forth an astonishing, searingly honest view of one segment of music history that is indeed unsung. . . . [The] memoir reminds us with stunning candor that too much has happened under the radar of the jazz industry. . . . We need more books like Songs of the Unsung, by which we can come to understand creative musicians as agents of change at home, effecting local pockets of activity with universal ramifications. For Tapscott provides us with an unwritten truth behind this radically unfinished music called jazz." — Vijay Iyer, Current Musicology

Songs of the Unsung—It’s about time! Horace Tapscott was one of the first guys doing it in the community. His life has been a big influence on me. He made sure younger and older people played music. He is one of the true giants of this music in the way he played it, wrote it, and lived it.” — Billy Higgins

“During those days the greatest thing happened to me. I got something I needed when I was on the radio . . . . While I was being interviewed, the telephone rang. It was a woman calling from almost her deathbed in the hospital to tell me that my music had helped to heal her, someone with a real soft voice, sobbing as she spoke, like she had been under some kind of dark cloth, saying that finally some light came in because of the sounds.
‘Thank you so very much for playing and please don’t stop.’ I never knew her name, never met her. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. But what she said to me justified everything that I believed in. There wasn’t anything happening moneywise and sometimes you’re down in the dumps, but you have to pull your head up. When things like that happen, those little small things, well, that was the idea of the sounds in the first place.” — from Chapter Twelve

“This is a splendid book, a wonderfully accessible first person narrative by an important and unusual figure in the history of jazz and the history of Black Los Angeles. Tapscott has an important story to tell and he conveys his experiences, opinions, and philosophy clearly through an engaging and conversational style filled with rich descriptions and witty observations.” — George Lipsitz, author of Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place


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Price: $23.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Horace Tapscott —a pianist, trombonist, and composer whose unique approach to avant-garde jazz earned him legendary status—was also a leader and organizer who dedicated himself for many years to raising his community through the arts. Born in Houston and a veteran of the United States Air Force, Tapscott taught and guided hundreds of Los Angeles youths.

Steven L. Isoardi, along with Tapscott and six others, coedited Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles. He also edited Buddy Collette’s autobiography, Jazz Generations, and produced the 4-CD Rhino Records set Central Avenue Sounds.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Foreword / Steven Isoardi

Introduction / William Marshall

Photographs compiled by Michael Dett Wilcots

1. Early Years in Houston

2. California

3. Setting the Pace

4. Central Avenue

5. Military Service

6. On the Road with Lionel Hampton

7. To Preserve and Develop Black Culture

8. The Fire This Time

9. In the Middle of It

10. Stayin’ Alive

11. The Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension

12. Settling into the Community

13. Movements to the Present

14. Reflections and Directions

Postscript: From the Funeral Service

“For Cecilia” by Horace Tapscott

“PAPA, The Lean Griot” by Kamau Daáood

Appendix: A Partial List of UGMAA Artists, 1961–1998

Discography I: Horace Tapscott

Discography II: Music from the Ark

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist, 2002 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for History, Association for Recorded Sound Collections

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6271-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2531-4