My Journey Into Los Angeles Jazz History

Recently I’ve been blogging about The Gathering, a Kickstarter project to complete a documentary focused on the creative music scene down there. Discovering the project has been just one step in a whole process that’s unfolded rather quickly for me in the last several weeks.

Horace Tapscott is well known as a free jazz pioneer who turned down the New York life to cultivate a community in L.A. What I’ve been looking into is the scene that he built up and that continued after his death in 1999.

The music is pure jazz, heavy with that McCoy Tyner sound of grand, sweeping chords, often accented with irresistible basslines that bring a touch of soul jazz. There can be a big-band slickness to the music, but it’s hardy stuff, coming from the hearts of central and east L.A. performers, not the minds of Hollywood producers.

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring this world and learning about Leimert Park. I’m now itching to go see the area, just to be there for a few minutes. (And now, I can even pronounce it correctly — it’s luh-MERT.)

Here’s the webchain that brought me here.

iannello-maintenant.jpg1. Lucia IannelloMaintenant (Slam, 2015)

The starting block was an episode of Taran’s Free Jazz Hour, a podcast covering a wealth of adventurous jazz. One track, “Desert Fairy Princess” performed by trumpeter Lucia Iannello, featured an irresistable bassline and a low-key jazz groove. And it was on Slam, a label I respect. What the heck — I took the plunge and bought a copy.

Maintenant is a good CD mixing inside jazz with a floaty take on free improvisation. But the credits revealed something interesting: “Desert Fairy Princess” and another track, “Peyote Dream No. III,” had been written by Jesse Sharps, and “Ballad for Samuel” was by Horace Tapscott.

The CD’s concept, it turned out was to record Iannello’s own compositions alongside songs by members of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra (P.A.P.A.), Tapscott’s vehicle for energizing the African-American artistic community in L.A.

Tapscott I knew. But Jesse Sharps? I had to find out.

sharps-sharps2. Jesse Sharps Quintet & P.A.P.A. — Sharps and Flats (Nimbus West, 2005)

It turns out many compositions from the P.A.P.A. collective became standards among this Leimert Park community. “Desert Fairy Princess” is one (and is featured on The Gathering’s CD); another is “The Goat and the Ramjam,” which kicks off this album. It’s got more of that sound that had drawn me into Iannello’s music.

The album consists of six quintet tunes and one 16-minute piece from a 14-member version of P.A.P.A. that includes Tapscott on piano (although Sharps is listed as the bandleader).

It’s all well executed jazz — on the straight side, but in a creative mode that shows a soul. There’s more going on here than just another session.

I was spurred to learn more. Luckily for me, a project involving Jesse Sharps had just started up.

thegathering-sax3. The Gathering

That project was the abovementioned Kickstarter, of course, which aims to fund post-production of a documentary called The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz.

The Kickstarter video told me a lot more about the community I’d stumbled onto — and, maybe more importantly, fixed its center of gravity at Leimert Park. The name meant nothing to me at first glance.

The Gathering is a big band combining jazz veterans and adept youngsters to carry on the community that Horace Tapscott set into motion. Multiple versions of the band have convened over the years, but the concert performed in 2005, the subject of the documentary, was the first. It also resulted in a CD that came out in 2008. It’s still available on CDBaby in downloadable form.

mimi-m4. Mimi Melnick’s liner notes

That CD came with 5,000 words of liner notes by Mimi Melnick, a local supporter and patron of the music who hosts concerts at her house (and plays a mean boogie-woogie piano herself — check the ending of Paige’s promo film.)

The entire essay is posted on The Gathering’s website. Melnick goes into deep detail about the musicians and their histories — and about the community itself, down to the detail of where Leimert Park is located.

Turns out, it’s in a part of central L.A. called the Crenshaw district.

That’s where my parents are from. Dad grew up in a house just on the other side of Crenshaw Blvd.

Local pride bubbled up in me. Even though I’m Asian-American, I felt like I shared a connection with this African-American community. Even though we left L.A. before the heyday of Tapscott’s work, I felt like I was researching my own past.

I don’t believe I’ve even seen Leimert Park before. Our trips to L.A. were spent visiting family, so I’ve only recently begun discovering the city. We’ve become closer to relatives in the Echo Park area, for instance. Now I’ve got another part of the city to explore.

Last night, I mentioned Leimert Park to my parents — and of course, they knew exactly what I was talking about. They were vaguely aware of an artistic community around there; Dad even mentioned remembering some kind of theater around Western and 45th. Going back to Melnick’s liner notes, I see she does mention a venue near that address. It was a community center called The Gathering. Jesse Sharps named his band after it.

nimbuscollective5. Nimbus West

So, now I’m hooked. I’ve begun delving into the catalogue of Nimbus West, the record label started by Tom Albach after he’d heard Tapscott’s music. It’s the only place where some of these musicians have been documented.

The Nimbus Collective seemed like a good place to start. It’s a sextet that released a double-CD, Live in Lotusland (Nimbus West, 2010) based on a 1987 concert. As I noted here, the band didn’t last long, unfortunately.

“The Goat and the Ramjam” makes another appearance here, as does “Retribution, Reparation,” another composition that appears on multiple Nimbus West CDs. That one’s written by pianist Nate Morgan, and it features an urgent, yearning theme that climbs and falls at a rapid pace. I’ve been humming it for days.

I was sad to learn Nate Morgan had passed away in 2013 after suffering a stroke in 2008. If it weren’t for Nimbus West, we might not have any document of his playing.

The first of his albums I’ve sampled is Retribution, Reparation, which of course includes the title track. There’s also “Mass Madness,” a breakneck free-jazz piece with a pinpoint sprint of a solo by Danny Cortez on trumpet. (The band consists mostly of Nimbus Collective members, including Cortez.)

While the Kickstarter project is looking like a longshot, I’m hoping to see that movie someday. Meanwhile, I have a lot more ground to traverse, and I’d encourage you to give this music a try yourself. Most of the Nimbus West catalogue is available on iTunes and eMusic — and you can sample some of it in one blow with the L.A. Unsung compilation.

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