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  • The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles
  • Raleigh Dailey
The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles. By Steven L. Isoardi. With an Appendix by Roberto Miranda. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [xxi, 356 p. ISBN 0-520-24591-1. $34.95.] Illustrations, index, bibliography, appendix, notes, compact disc.

The history of jazz on the West Coast is gradually coming into focus after years of neglect and misunderstanding by historians, critics, and jazz listeners alike. Los [End Page 632] Angeles has for too long been characterized variously as a second-rate New York City, a haven for the "cool" sounds of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, or a place where slick, superficial studio productions were cranked out under the commercial shadow of the Hollywood film industry. At best, knowledgeable jazz listeners knew about the Central Avenue scene and could rattle off a list of relevant names: Art Pepper, Gerald Wilson, Hampton Hawes, or Shorty Rogers. What happened to jazz in Los Angeles after the 1950s? What role did avant-garde jazz styles play on the West Coast? How did jazz fit into the social upheavals in Los Angeles from the Watts riots in 1965 to the Rodney King verdict in 1992 and beyond?

Isoardi sets out to answer such questions. As his book clearly demonstrates, Los Angeles has long been the home of an incredibly diverse, vibrant jazz scene that has mirrored the colorful, exciting, and troubled history of the city itself. The book is intended to be a sequel to Central Avenue Sounds, an oral history of jazz in Los Angeles co-edited by Isoardi that covers the period through the early 1950s (Clora Bryant, et al., eds., Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998]). Isoardi knows this history well, and it shows; his meticulous research (he conducted over 100 interviews in preparing the book) and his love of the subject are evident at every turn.

The author has a particular connection with the avant-garde musical and social movement that is the subject of The Dark Tree; Isoardi knew its central figure Horace Tapscott well, editing Tapscott's excellent autobiography (Horace Tapscott, Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott, edited by Steven Isoardi [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001]). The Dark Tree is thus a sequel to that book as well, providing the first detailed account of the community arts movement surrounding Tapscott that began in 1961 with the formation of the Underground Musician's Association (UGMA). Isoardi crafts a sweeping narrative that is not so much a history of a musical movement as a social history of a people whose music is otherwise almost unknown.

Isoardi's methodology deftly combines scholarly analysis with oral history. Throughout the book the parties involved speak for themselves in colorful fashion and in vivid detail. The author's analysis is keenly focused on the social environment of the movement he chronicles: his exploration of the movement's antecedents encompasses African music and culture, the educational system in the Los Angeles schools, the musical and economic prosperity of the years following World War II, and the difficulties plaguing the city in more recent times. In tracing the genesis of this community arts movement, Isoardi also enticingly touches on several neglected aspects of music history, including LaMonte Young's connection with avant-garde jazz, the relationship between jazz in Los Angeles and the music of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, and the more experimental side of the Central Avenue scene of the 1950s. This last topic provides an essential backdrop for the author's discussion of the musical currents in the Los Angeles of the 1960s, as he traces the city's musical and social activity beyond Central Avenue to Western Avenue, Crenshaw Boulevard, and beyond.

Horace Tapscott, John Carter, and Bobby Bradford were a trio of musicians raised in Texas who later became the patriarchs of free jazz on the West Coast. Tapscott was a magnetic figure and became the focus of a grassroots movement intent on social change through creative music. Beginning in the third chapter of The...


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