Jesse Sharps: The Downbeast Interview
Jesse Sharps [photo by Jared Zagha]
At high noon on October 10, 2005 -- on what would have been the 88th birthday of Thelonious Monk -- a unique group of musicians gathered for a recording session at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles. Many of the elders there were graduates of pianist Horace Tapscott's mighty Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a musical insurgency formed in almost complete cultural isolation amidst one of the most violent and confrontational decades in American life.
Los Angeles in the 1960s was a city, like the nation, split down the middle over the subject of race, both sides staying behind their battle lines, eyeing the other with suspicion and rage, rarely venturing over to the other side, preferring to let their minds run rampant with the worst nightmares of what "They" were capable of. But, as Rick Perlstein writes in his current book Nixonland, in which the 1965 Watts Riots plays a central role: "Only one had the power to put the other in jail.”
What does this have to do with jazz? In South Central, this "hot" time gave new urgency to the Arkestra's gelling as a unit of musical and social change; Tapscott, whose mantra was "Contributive, Not Competitive,” adored children and used his "guerilla street band" to draw them from the dark lures of street life into musical transcendence and self-reliance via the Ark's signature woodwind-heavy Afro-jazz. One of those children was a 13-year-old named Jesse Sharps.
When the curfew was lifted after days of violence in Watts in August 1965, Sharps wandered out onto the National Guard-patrolled 113th Street, leaving behind a violent and tense home life, and wandered through the smoking ruins of his neighborhood ten blocks north to 103rd Street, the main artery of South Central. "I thought it was the end of the world," Sharps later told an interviewer. He came across a towering figure in a leather jacket and black tam tilted to one side, standing on the street with his arms crossed, looking out over the razed city with a wounded scowl on his face. "I thought he was a Black Panther, I thought he was one of Huey Newton's guys," Sharps recalled. It was Tapscott. "He was mad. I could read his mind: 'What happened to my community?' He didn't like what he was looking at. He did not like it one bit." Behind him, the Ark was playing in front of the embers of their destroyed concert space. "They weren't just 'playing' -- you could tell the music was telling you what just happened in the riots." If there ever was a life changing moment in Sharp's life, this was it.
The Gathering, Cal Arts, October 10, 2005
Flash forward forty years later to the stage at CalArts. Sharps, now in his 50s and a formidable composer/bandleader in his own right, is the driving force behind The Gathering, a CD and accompanying DVD released this week that chronicles a meeting of minds between, as its subtitle says, "The Roots and Branches of LA Jazz." The "roots" included many who began their distinguished careers in the Ark: saxophonist Michael Session (the current bandleader after Tapscott's death in 1999), singer Dwight Trible, poet Kamau Daaood, bassist Roberto Miguel Miranda, flautist Kafi Roberts, saxophonist Azar Lawrence, French horn player Fundi Legohn -- as well as other elder statesman of the SoCal scene: trombonist Phil Ranelin, drummer Ndugu Chancler, trumpeter Richard Grant, and percussionist Taumbu. The "branches" were up-and-comers young players like saxophonists Kamasi Washington and Randall Fisher, bassist Nick Rosen, pianist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Nathaniel Brooks, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and violinist-viola player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, cellist Peter Jacobson, bassist/clarinetist Tracy Wannomae and English horn player/oboist Myka Miller.
Recently, we sat down with Mr. Sharps and producer Tom Paige at the World Stage in Leimert Park -- Taspcott's base of operations for many years and where he made connections with many of the musicians listed above -- to talk about the motivation behind The Gathering project. As Paige told writer Mimi Melnick, the title of the CD and film "truly conveys both the past and present Leimert Park connection that all the musicians shared, whether members of the Ark, friends of Jesse Sharps, longtime as well as recent players from the area, or other musicians who came in through their connection with those involved." (For a wonderfully comprehensive account of The Gathering session, as well as the deep history behind it and a virtuoso run-down of the songs performed, read Melnick's superb liner notes here,)