Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE PEOPLE'S KEY: An Oral History of the World Stage

On Sunday, August 24 at the Ford Amphitheater, multiple generations of jazz's best and brightest will assemble to pay tribute to the late jazz drummer Billy Higgins. The concert is part of a 25th anniversary celebration of The World Stage, an Afrocentric music and arts venue that the Higgins co-founded with poet Kamau Daáood in 1989. What follows are memories of the scruffy early years of the Leimert Park landmark culled from interviews with three of its pivotal participants: Daáood, writer/professor Michael Datcher, founder of the Stage's long-running Anansi Writers' Workshop, and the Stage's current Executive Director, singer Dwight Trible.

As of his passing in 2001, Billy Higgins was one of the most recorded drummers in jazz, a Watts native who took to percussion at age five and was later forged a lifelong musical friendship at the Jacob Riis reform school with fellow truant, trumpeter Donald Cherry. Energized by bebop and hard bop, Cherry and Higgins were still young enough to have ears for the future, and the future arrived in the form of an eccentric young saxophonist from Texas named Ornette Coleman. Coleman's mold-breaking free approach would galvanize their playing and launch their storied careers in all corners of the jazz pantheon.

For his part, Higgins collaborated with the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Steve Lacy, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Milt Jackson, Art Pepper, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheny, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Chick Corea and Sun Ra. (That's just the short list BTW.) "Billy is a natural," Lacy once told writer Valerie Wilmer. "He can play on an ashtray, on top of a bar or on the floor, and it'll sound beautiful."

In 1978, after a lucrative career as Blue Note Records' de facto house timekeeper ("Smilin' Billy" could adopt any style required of him), Higgins returned to Los Angeles from New York and eventually settled with his family in Inglewood. Unfortunately, his neighbors in the bedroom community didn't take too kindly to the sound of a jazz master practicing his drums, no matter how beautifully (or quietly) he did it.

Enter a young poet named Kamau Daáood.

KAMAU DAÁOOD: I came out of the Watts Writers' Workshop, the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra, The Watts Media Center and [an arts collective near Western & 45th] in the 1970s called The I knew the value that these kinds of storefronts and little community institutions had on the lives of people, giving them a positive outlet to grow and develop their artistic skills.

Daáood worked both for assemblage artist John Outterbridge, director of the Watts Towers Art Center, and as an outreach worker in AIDS education. He led a street team that distributed free condoms in his own neighborhood, a small area southwest of downtown named for developer Walter H. Leimert, who originally conceived the neighborhood back in the 1920s as a whites-only residential and shopping community.

Since the 1950s, after such racist housing covenants were struck down by the Supreme Court, African-American, Latino and Japanese residents began moving into Leimert Park. Since the Watts Uprising, however, white flight to the suburbs left Leimert Park blighted and mostly dark, save John and Alonzo Davis' influential Brockman Gallery, which had set up shop on Degnan Boulevard back in 1967. Since the 1970s, the adjacent plaza at 43rd Place and Crenshaw had hosted the occasional community rally and cultural festival; after-dark, it transformed into a popular cruising spot for South L.A.'s gay population. 

KD: In the mid-1980s, the Watts Towers was honoring Billy Higgins and I had never met him before, but they asked me to write a piece for him ["The Last Psalms"]...After I read the poem, me and Billy got to talking afterward, and he was complimenting me and encouraging me about my work and he said, "Man why don't we get together? I have other things that I play besides the drums, so let's just work on some stuff." I was, "Wow, this is Billy Higgins, the cat that played with [Thelonious] Monk and John Coltrane and Lee Morgan." Basically, he'd come down to the Towers and I'd bring my little Superscope tape recorder, hit 'record'...But Billy didn't come down to play no drums. He would bring these little African instruments that he'd grown quite proficient with. He'd play this instrument called a gambra [and] I'd read my poems. I was in awe of the man.

MICHAEL DATCHER:Billy saw a need to have a place to jam in the neighborhood.

In 1982, drummer Carl Burnett, whose roots went back to the Latin Jazz heyday of the late 1950s, opened ARTWORKS 4, a small performance space at 3436 West 43rd Street. Debuting with a live radio broadcast of a group led by Higgins, ARTWORKS was one of the first attempts to revitalize what locals called "the village" as a grassroots oasis for African-American art, music, dance, and poetry. Burnett, to his everlasting credit, even reached out to members of South L.A.'s nascent hip-hop community.

DWIGHT TRIBLE: ARTWORKS 4 was where I got introduced to Leimert Park. [The World Stage] is kind of modeled after ARTWORKS. Everything that's been going on here -- the vocal workshops, the concerts, the poetry readings -- was going on there. Both Carl and Billy Higgins were interested in this kind of thing...It must have been open for about five years.

KD: I did a few things at ARTWORKS 4, and Billy helped Carl with that as well. He and Billy were on the road a lot. Billy was always in demand. Everybody wanted him and he was so giving with his time. Carl was doing a lot of stuff with Horace Silver, and he didn't really have the energy to promote the place. Eventually he had to close it.

ARTWORKS closed in 1989 and Brockman Gallery a year after that, but both left seeds of black bohemia in the village, which was still mostly dark storefronts. Nevertheless, two new spaces appeared: the multimedia arts center KAOS Network, opened in 1984 by Ben Caldwell, a former Howard University professor who had worked at both the Brockman and ARTWORKS, and Brian Breye's relocated Museum in Black.

KD: There were virtually no outlets for creative music in L.A. at that time, or at least nothing on a consistent level. The clubs had fallen down from what they once were. So it was a place for us to work on our stuff and to interface. Billy told me that if ever I saw a place that we could do something at to let him know. And I was in Leimert Park one day...and there were a lot of empty spaces. One of them was under the control of the Brockman Gallery, and I inquired about it, because I could visualize what we could do with that space...I should mention that when Billy and I were trying to get the place, [drummer] Tootie Heath and [two associates] were also interested in getting it. But they later found out that they could not sell anything -- it wasn't set up to be a retail outlet -- so they pulled back and I got the place as an Artist-in-Residence. It was only supposed to last six months.

It couldn't have begun less inauspiciously: A stark brick-and-mortar boit for informal and infrequent creativity. In those early days, Daáood often slept at the tiny space and every morning had to sweep numerous used condoms away from the street by the front door.

KD: Because I was bringing in all these other artists, they let me continue...I immediately began to hit people up for money. Me and Billy, we called on a number of artists who made contributions and we put down two grand, paid the first and the last, and that was the beginning. After we signed the lease and I got the keys. Someone came around and said there were Carl's [old-timey theater] chairs out in the alley and they were getting ready to haul them off to the junkyard, so we paid a guy we saw going down the street twenty bucks to throw them on the back of his pickup and drive it over. We also got Carl's stage. That was it...Then there was an artist next door named [Kisasi] Ramsess, and Ramsess had a baby grand piano that we asked if we could use. We popped the legs off and put it on his son's skateboard and just rolled it down the street. Of course, Billy brought his drums.

Things were so loose that Daáood tossed another set of keys to one of his mentors from Watts who had relocated to the village, Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra leader Horace Tapscott.

KD: One day Billy was in there playing drums and Horace just walked in off the street, didn't say anything, and sits down at the piano and he and Billy went into it. That was the first music that really christened the place. There was another saxophone player who showed up and took his saxophone out of it case, and I really wish he wouldn't have. [laughs] Philosophically, in the beginning, it wasn't all that deep, just cats who did not have place to play or even rehearse...It was a very humble space and I had the audacity to name it "The World Stage."

The World Stage Cultural Center officially opened its doors to the public in June 1989. Its motto: "Seeking Light Through Sound."

KD: We started doing live things periodically. There was no set schedule or anything. Plus, we had to get people to come down and at the time, the 1980s, the press was bad on the neighborhood. They had drilled this thing into all of us that gangs and crack cocaine ruled South Central, and to some extent that was true, but I think it became stereotypical. So the thought of people coming out at night in South Central was something they had to think about. So I think what we were doing by having concerts at night was a bold gesture.

DT: When the Stage opened, I was living up in West Adams and Kamau would literally get on the phone and call everybody in his telephone book: "We're at the World Stage tonight! There's so-and-so playing here tonight at the World Stage! Come on down! It's THE WORLD STAGE." When Kamau says that with that deep voice of his, it sounds like something HUGE.

KD: I felt that anywhere you went, there was the center of the world, anywhere you are is the center of the stage and even in this small, funky little room, magic could happen with the right intentions.

DT: After about three weeks of him calling, I told my wife, "We gotta go down there and support the place. We can't let a brother go down in flames." So one night we came down and it so happened that [saxophonist] Michael Session was playing that night...Mind you that on this particular Friday night there was noooothing on this street. None of the stores you see now. It was empty, and the World Stage didn't yet have any lights out front, so it was dark in front of the place too. It seemed kind of...seedy. There was about ten of us listening and [the] band was smoking, and then, Michael said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're gonna welcome Mr. Horace Tapscott." But Horace didn't play with the band, he got up onstage and just played the piano all by himself. I never saw anybody give so much of themselves before. This meek skinny man turned into a lion right in front of our eyes, and it was so intense that it was becoming too much for me. I was ecstatic and disturbed at the same time...That moment changed my concept of music. It was just like the sea, the roaring sea. When we were walking out, my wife and I were both kind of quiet because we could not put our feelings into words. So after we got into the car and were on the road for a little while, we said: "Wow, how does he handle himself outside of when he gets to playing music? How does he handle all that emotion that goes on inside him for the rest of the day?"
     After that, we would come here regularly, because a lot my friends started playing here. So we'd get through with our gigs at the other clubs and come down here at one in the morning and find the jazz session would just be getting started.

Almost from the beginning, Billy Higgins presided over the World Stage's long-running Monday night drum workshop. His students ranged from veteran musicians looking to learn from a master to children so tiny that when Higgins sat them on the drum seat their feet could barely reach the bass pedal.

[Photo courtesy of Anbiya Smith]

MD: [I saw him teach his drum workshop] many, many times. He was very patient and very loving. I am a professor and teacher myself, and what I learned from Billy Higgins is that love is a technology. It can help you negotiate everything from your marriage to raising your children to how to play your drums. He loved those kids in such a vulnerable, honest way that they felt confident enough to make a mistake or at least to try something new, and they just blossomed around him. Watching him and Kamau and with the kids, it would make you cry.

"They need a place to play, a place to work things out," he says. "Otherwise they don't know how it is to play for an audience."
The kids are the first segment of each drum workshop. One by one they come up on the little stage, bang around on the drum kit for a few minutes, take a bow and get their applause. The first boy, Samson, is only 4, but like the others, he's got spirit. Another small boy doesn't want to leave the drums once he's up there. He gives the cymbals a climactic whack, gets up to leave, then turns around and smashes them again. Wheels to leave again, turns back and whacks again. Finally Higgins has to shepherd him to the stage front. "Take your bow," he says with a firm smile. One kid drummer, about 8 with long dreadlocks, stays to jam with the adults and his father, a conga player, till 11. You can't feel too bad about the boy missing sleep on a school night.
Greg Burk, L.A. Weekly, 12/15/99

DT: The number one [graduate of Billy's drum workshop] was Kharon Harrison. Kharon was this big [indicates by holding hand four feet from the floor] when Billy got ahold of him, and now Kharan's a grown man and playing drums professionally now. Michael Session's son Mekala came up under Billy...and of course there's Willie Jones III -- his whole style and concept of drumming was based off the work he did with Billy...It was a royal combination when you put Billy and Kamau together.

Thanks to the example set by Daáood and Higgins, other participants emerged to donate their time. For nearly a decade, a man named Don Muhammed wrangled musicians, ran the door at shows and even swept up afterwards. Drummer Cornel Fauler actively went around to the city's established jazz clubs to coax their marquee acts down to run the occasional Saturday music workshop. More importantly, Fauler started the Thursday night jam sessions that still run to this day. Rose Gales, a soft-spoken pianist from Houston whose husband Larry backed Thelonious Monk in 1960's and who ran her own sessions in the '70s at a Hyde Park club called L.B. West, also hosted jams on Saturdays that drew the bebop elders of the surrounding area. Gales continues to run the Sisters of Jazz jam sessions for female musicians on Sunday nights. Daáood also called upon poet friends Nafis Nabawi, Akilah Nayo Oliver and Anthony Lyons to institute a writing workshop, but like the music at the World Stage, it started in drabs. Remembered Nabawi to journalist Lynell George: "At one time, Anthony and I would sit in there and look at the clock on the door: 'Ain't nobody here by 9 o'clock, we're splitting.' But we kept doing it."

KD: At first the crowds were smaller but next thing you know you start having butts in the seats, and then about a year and a half later, 5th Street Dick's came around and Richard Fulton, who was originally down there facilitating an Alcoholics Anonymous place, wanted to have a coffeehouse because it was one of his dreams...and he saw what we were doing and thought, I could probably do live music in there too.

The three things I love to do most in the world is sit on my ass, drink coffee and listen to jazz.
Richard Fulton, from the documentary Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South-Central

KD: Richard opened up at the time of the rebellion in '92. He would always laugh and say that some of the first people he served coffee to was the National Guard.

The destruction of the Rodney King riots of 1992 reached as far as the village. A mosque was burned to the ground. A market on the corner was leveled. But something interesting happened: people descended on Leimert Park to protect new spots like the Museum in Black -- even moving its artifacts to safer locations -- when they were threatened with similar fates. Suddenly, there was something worth saving. The Leimert Park renaissance had begun.

MD: I was in graduate school [at UCLA] living in Westwood and hating it and looking to move...I was driving on Crenshaw and I turned left at 43rd Place and Degnan. I'm a big jazz fan, and I thought, What is that sound? It was this very loud Afro-type beat coming from down the street. It was a Saturday afternoon and people were crowded in front of this little door. The band was just blowing up so hard an people were yelling, "Blow man blow!" So many people were excited about it. So I went in an asked, "Whose place is this? What is this place? Who's in charge?" and Don Muhammed...explained to me what the World Stage was, but he also said that their poetry program had been suspended. He told me the guy who as the co-founder was a poet and he had this awesome record shop around the corner called Final Vinyl.

I walked down Degnan, hooked a left at 43rd and saw a bright yellow sandwich board shouting Final Vinyl. I stepped inside the record shop. There was a salt-and-pepper-bearded brother sitting on the staircase, talking on the phone. His eyes followed me in. I browsed through the large collection of used jazz records, waiting for him to finish his call. "How can I help you, brother?" a deep baritone inquired behind me...I told him my name is Michael Datcher and I was a graduate student in African-American studies at UCLA. Brother Muhammed at the World Stage just mentioned that there used to be a writer's workshop at the venue.
"Yes, because of staffing issues it's been on hiatus for the last six months."
"Well, I currently conduct a workshop out of my apartment. I live in the Palms but I'm considering moving here to Leimert Park. I would love the opportunity to help the workshop get up and running again."
Kamau didn't say anything. He'd been studying me closely since we'd been talking.
"Michael, may I call you Michael?"
"Michael, please don't take this the wrong way. I don't know you. I don't know the kind of person you are and how you approach business. It's a little awkward for me really because you just walked in off the street and asked to be involved in something that's very, very important to me and other people in this community. What I'm saying is that if things work out in such a way that you can come and lend your energy here, you have to understand that the World Stage is a sacred space and we approach the work from a sacred space."
From Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story by Michael Datcher

Datcher proved his mettle by bringing a core group of about 14 budding writers from his own workshop. Datcher took over what would eventually become The Anansi Writers' Workshop (after the West African spider-trickster god) in 1993 and applied a new, rigorous approach he dubbed "aggressive positivism" that he'd gleaned from his undergraduate days at Berkeley.

The poets walk into the World Stage Writer's Workshop clutching their lives in tattered notebooks. They stand patiently as I number one to twelve for the open-mic list. They place their names in slots: kaleidoscopes through which the complicated patterns of their lives can be viewed. The room begins to swell quickly with black word slangers. Sophisticated snapping handshakes, flirtatious conversations, and pure charisma make the air frisky. On the counter by the door, I light candles and Black Love incense. Smoke wafts up towards the slow-spinning ceiling fan twenty feet above. The first-timers occupy themselves with the black-and-white photographs lining the wall...Poets sitting along the white north wall beneath a painting of Miles Davis on fire. Dominating the opposite wall, a pensive John Coltrane seems to observe it all like a root doctor mid-diagnosis. These nurses and waiters and drug dealers and cashiers and Crips and math teachers and cooks and engineers and titty-bar dancers come to this place, where they are judged only by the quality of their work. The only stones cast are lazy poetry.
From Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story by Michael Datcher

MD: I recall that there was a bit of a pushback at the level of the intensity of the feedback...Writers and poets are notoriously sensitive about their work. Most of them read to their mothers or grandmothers, who are loving it -- You are one bad motherfucker with that poem! Woo! -- but for the workshop we added very honest but not harsh feedback. I tried to demonstrate by example how it should go: "I really loved your use of alliteration and how you attacked a very complicated topic, but when you began the poem 'Roses are red, violets are blue'? I think I've heard that before.'" But what was great about it was this: Because of that feedback, those who came in here began to grow artistically, so their work became this really powerful collection of poems. Also, the conversations we'd have, so many great stories, and it was also a really safe, warm space to have them in.

Between Higgins' contacts and Fauler's efforts, The World Stage became a have-to-drop-by spot for musicians coming through town to play or run Master Classes. They included Max Roach, Charles Lloyd, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Burrell, Kurt Elling, Bennie Maupin, Dianne ReevesFreddie Hubbard, Robbie and Alice Coltrane, Jackie MacLean, Pharoah Sanders, Barry Harris, Buster Williams, Herbie Hancock, Dr. Art Davis, Cedar Walton, Branford Marsalis, Don Cherry and Bobby Hutcherson. The growing reputation of Datcher's workshop drew esteemed writers like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jervey Tervalon, Saul Williams, poets Jayne CortezYousef Komunyakaa and Keopisitle Kgositsile, and prototypical rap groups The Watts Prophets and The Last Poets.

KD: We were able to survive as long as we did because what we gave was something you couldn't get anywhere else: freedom of expression, sincerity of expression, and at times such a high level of virtuosity. There were things that I saw happen in that room that were just incredible -- oh man, I thought that the walls had just vaporized, the stuff would be so high, I felt like the place was just lifting up in the air, the cats onstage were gone; it wasn't uncommon for that kind of stuff to happen right there in that little 50-seat-at-most environment -- like if you ate garlic and belched in there everyone else would know about it. You never knew who was gonna show up. I walked in one night and Chaka Khan's onstage sitting in. Another time, it was around dusk, I was walking past and there were only two people inside. Billy helped mentor this trumpet player who's still down there, Richard Grant...Richard was around seventeen, and he was on the stage doing a solo, no piano player or anything...and sitting in there watching this seventeen-year-old boy was Nina Simone.

But it wasn't about just the big, out-of-town names. The Stage became a magnet for multiple generations of L.A.'s unsung jazz talent, from saxophonist Harold Land to his pianist son Harold, Jr., from trumpeter Clark Terry to his violinist cousin Lesa, from Don Cherry to his son David Ornette. It drew the royal ladies of L.A. jazz, from saxophonist Vi Redd and trumpeter Clora Bryant to bassist Nedra Wheeler and pianist Barbara Morrison. Then on a constant level playing in there were all the subdivisions and permutations of Horace Tapscott's Arkestra and its extended family of hometown talent like drummers Woody "Sonship" Theus, Don Littleton and Fritz Wise, trombonists Phil Ranelin and George Bohanon, bassists David Bryant, Jeff Littleton, James Leary  and Henry Franklin, pianists Nate Morgan and Bobby West, saxophonists Azar Lawrence, Charles OwensMichael Session and David Murray, flautists James Newton, Jesse Sharps and Maia, trumpeters Steve Smith and Oscar Brashear, and the ever-evolving lineups of the Arkestra's female choir The Great Voice of UGMAA.

KD: Horace used to say, "Our music is contributive, not competitive." All of the artists had an alliance, we were trying to make it happen, it wasn't like, "Oh man, Richard [Fulton]'s got a full house tonight and we ain't got nobody." It wasn't like that, it was, What can I do to help you?

Back in 1989, the same year the World Stage opened, a health food restaurant at Crenshaw and Exposition called the Good Life Cafe begins hosting innovative "No Cussin'" open mic nights that gave voice to some of the most influential underground rappers of the 1990s. When The Good Life closed in 1994, its party-literate aesthetic was drawn south by Project Blowed's open-mic nights at the KAOS Network and the revived street life of Leimert Park.

KD: The biggest statement someone could make was Richard Fulton putting tables on the outside of 5th Street Dick's. He did this in South Central, at night. People playing chess and dominoes on the street, drinking coffee, music upstairs, music around the corner -- all in this supposedly violent place in South Central. The next thing you know the streets are crowded with people from all parts of the city, and it blew away the stereotypical myths: there ain't no deaths, no fights, no thefts from here on in...Those tables out on the street were forums, where the young could talk to the old...Then cats started coming in [to Final Vinyl] and looking for records to sample: The Pharcyde, Biz Markie, Afrika Bamabatta, Warren G, the Freestyle Fellowship, Medusa, even Tupak [Shakur]. The kids across the street brought him over one day to meet me. He was very nice, very respectful...Next thing you know you're walking down the street and there's a young one coming your way and they nod and say: "Hey O.G., much respect."

i stand on the og corner
tell old school stories with a bebop tongue
to the hip hop future
i see new rainbows in their eyes
as we stand in puddles of melted chains.
From "Leimert Park" by Kamau Daáood

"If there are no questions, peace and blessings. The mic is now open for works in progress."
A.K. Toney rises out of his seat near the back and rambles towards the stage...Five-foot nine and painfully thin, he walks with the slight stoop of the wounded...This twenty-year-old man looks like the sixteen-year-old orphan he was and is.
A.K.'s spindly fingers snatch the head of the mic.
In unison, the crowd returns this early Egyptian dynasty greeting, which means 'Peace.' He pauses and looks down at the black notebook in his hand.
"I've been working on this piece," he begins. "I recently got out the hospital. I was walking down Broadway near Eighty-Ninth with one of my partnas, and this nigga rolled up on us and pulled out his strap [and] just blasted my man in the chest right in front of me. Blood was everywhere. Then he turned to me. I knew this dude, we didn't have no beef. I was like, 'Hold up, man, wait.' He started blasting shots into both of my legs [and] I collapsed right there in the street. Then he just turned around and walked away...This poem, "Chronicle Trauma," is about that experience. I need some feedback."
The audience sits still, stunned, as A.K. begins to read."
From Raising Fences: A Black Man's Love Story by Michael Datcher

KD: [telling parable] There was this guy that thought his axe was stolen by this kid next door, and everyday he would see the kid and think, Thief! The kid just looked all creepy to him, just looked wrong. And this went on for a year, all that animosity building up in this guy's head towards that kid who stole his axe. Until one day, he was out in the shed and under a bunch of stuff he finds his axe, and day by day that kid started looking different to him, didn't look so much like a thief anymore.

Arguably the late nineties were the golden age creativity of the village and artists associated the Stage. In 1997, Kamau Daa'ood released Leimert Park, an evocative capsule of the eponymous neighborhood with a core group formed out of the Stage regulars and guests dubbed the Army of Healers. Groups like Black/Note and the B Sharp Jazz Quartet, made up of young up-and-comers who first connected under Higgins' tutelage, reinvigorated L.A.'s unsung history with acoustic hard bop. Jazz and hip hop interfaced through the efforts of pianist Billy Childs, who formed the funk group Prophecy with poets from Datcher's workshop, which was producing dividends of fresh talent: Toney, Conney Williams, S. Pearl Sharp, Pam Ward and Pulitzer-nominated novelist Ruth Foreman.

KD: Around ten years into the stage, officialdom -- the city -- began to lean on us. They threatened to shut us down if we didn't get a business license...We weren't a club. We didn't sell anything. The intake that we received from the door for our programs and classes, which was very minimum [$5], was used to pay the lease and keep the lights on. And would pull money from his own pockets to make up the difference, and there were times where I had to do the same. The light bill was different though, it was cool 'cause the box was on the inside of the building, so the only way they could cut it off was to get inside the building. We controlled it, so a lot of times we could keep them at bay.

MD: This is terrible to say now, but as a jazz fan I was so in awe of Billy Higgins that I was never fully myself around him...One day he came in and suggested, "Hey man, you should think about having congas going while your reading out your poetry," which was a great idea. But I was so moved and inspired by him and his work...Billy was just a really beautiful humble cat, such an impressive figure and people really came to this spot because of him...He inspired this whole community just by his presence.

KD: Billy had been sick...He had two liver transplants, the first one failed and they put another one in right after that, but that one was deteriorating too and he wasn't gonna get another one. That was tragic, he couldn't get another one because he didn't do everything he was supposed to do with the one that he had...At times he chose to work in order to do what he had to do. He had to work, he had a family to take care of...Billy gave to his own detriment, because he was taking huge chunks of money out of his pocket to help keep the Stage going, and Billy wasn't wealthy.

DT: Billy had so much compassion that it didn't matter who you were. If you encountered the guy and he didn't have to know you -- you could be a bum on he street for all he knew -- and he could have so much compassion for you that he would take you for a meal and sit with you while you ate. If you needed some sort of advice, he'd take the time to give you his pearls of wisdom.

KD: I remember we came out of this place one time, and this guy with a walker come up and asked Billy for some money. Billy only had twenties in his pocket so he handed the cat a twenty dollar bill. I tell you, I'd never seen a person lift up their walker and run down the street so fast! Billy busted up at that.

DT: I find that with guys like Billy and Horace that they mentored by example. Sometimes it wasn't so much what they said as it was what you saw them do, and if you just hang around and watch then you'll get all the lessons that you need. One thing that I certainly still miss to this day is every Friday after about 3pm after they would go to the Jama, and then Billy would come down to the Stage and hold court and we'd just sit here and listen to him tell his stories about working with Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins...After all of those conversations, he'd talk about how the drummer fits in with everything: "The drummer can make or break everyone else in the group because it's the loudest instrument," or "When I go into a room that I've never played in before, I always start with brushes 'cause the room is gonna tell you what it needs. Then once I get hip to the vibrations of the room, then I pull out my sticks." We'd say, "Billy, man, you need to write a book" and Billy would say [affects a hepcat whisper] "Hey man, I'm writin' a book right now!"

KD: Horace did a gig in there one night and afterward I walked up to him and said, "Horace, man, we only made twenty dollars tonight." Horace just laughed. He wasn't trippin' off no money. He took ten dollars and said, "It's so good to be able to work in your own community and then walk home afterwards."

As the new millennium dawned, The World Stage experienced two implacable losses. Plagued for years by health problems and suffering from a palsied right hand, Horace Tapscott played the very last song he would ever play at the World Stage one late night. He finished the song "Isle of Celia," his tribute to his wife of nearly 50 years, and, exhausted, sat back on the piano bench and said, "That's it. I'm done." Tapscott died of lung cancer on February 27, 1999.

Billy Higgins followed on May 3, 2001. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles. 

KD: What happens when the father is no longer in the home?

On such difficult and dark nights of loss and reflection, The World Stage revealed another incarnation as a place to gather and honor those lost and to help those in need. Some folks started calling the place "Church."

DT: We had a drummer who passed away last week, and we don't know if he even has enough money for a funeral, but you can bet your bottom dollar we will have a memorial service for that drummer. That's also what we do here. We've had hundreds of fundraisers and memorial services for the brothers and sisters that get sick or need some help. Whether you are famous or well-to-do or poor, if you're part of this village we will not let your life go out in vain without being recognized.

THE WORLD STAGE 25TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION HONORING BILLY HIGGINS starts 6pm on August 24th at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Go here for more information on tickets and performers.