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It's a Saturday morning in January, and Joe Sample, casually dressed in a baby-blue polo and jeans, barks instructions inside of a matchbox-size rehearsal space at Texas Southern University, located on the Third Ward campus at Cleburne and Ennis streets.
"In black music, you come down on the one. You're putting the accent on the wrong beat," Sample says from behind an upright piano. The members of the student-centric Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra, crammed together in the tiny room inside the low-slung Rollins-Stewart Music Center, wait for further instructions from the gray- and charcoal-headed Sample, who sports a silver goatee that's neatly trimmed.
The jazz big band is running through Sample's "Buttermilk Sky," a horn-friendly, funk-driven, soul-jazz cut with a summer-day-at-the-park tempo. The song is reminiscent of a Sample-pioneered sound, which the Houston legend molded as a founding member of the Jazz Crusaders (later The Crusaders), and which snatched the attention of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and a good chunk of the jazz and rock worlds.
When the student band plays it to Sample's liking, the tune burns. Apparently, they're not quite there this morning.
"Ray Charles would say, 'You're fucking my shit up!' Don't be fucking my shit up," says the even-keeled yet blunt and expletive-prone Sample to a chorus of belly laughs.
At 74 years old, Sample, a Fifth Ward native and Phillis Wheatley High School graduate, is experiencing an uneasy retirement. Following six decades of performing and recording with the greats, including Marvin Gaye, Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Joni Mitchell, the pianist and keyboardist, citing health reasons, left his 40-year home of Los Angeles to come back to Houston in 2001.
For the past decade, Sample has remained musically active, traveling to Germany and Scandinavia to present his original music. But teaching at the collegiate level is a new gig for Sample, who has been earmarked to revive the shattered image of one of the nation's oldest and largest black universities. The once-proud jazz-studies program, which produced folks like soul-jazz flutist/pianist Bobbi Humphrey and smooth-jazz king Kirk Whalum, is a key element in TSU President John Rudley's renaissance plan to restore legitimacy to the university.
In the process — and at a school known more for the Ocean of Soul marching band than for any other type of music — a quality program has been quietly educating students, thanks to Sample, who landed on TSU's payroll after Rudley heard that the legendary musician was hanging out in the studio of KTSU-FM 90.9.
"I said, 'You mean one of the Crusaders is over at our radio station?' I jumped up and walked over there immediately. I met Joe and after we talked awhile, he agreed to explore some ways for him to contribute here," says Rudley, who swears he's cleared most of the hurdles threatening the university. "I don't think he'd ever considered teaching before, but I think he became intrigued by the idea that he had a storehouse of experience and skills to pass down."
In fall 2012, Sample joined the staff alongside TSU interim jazz-studies director and alum Horace Alexander Young, a heavy-hitting musician who had also left his native Houston, and Howard C. Harris, the founder of TSU's jazz-studies program. During Harris's 42-year tenure at the school, he has taught and worked with pop queen Beyoncé and Billboard-lauded gospel artist Yolanda Adams.
In the meantime, the students, who don't always fit the textbook version of a musician, are buying into the program's flexible teaching styles that emphasize real-world applications and not just a stuffy, by-the-sheet-music curriculum.
"[Young's] methodology isn't just based on theory; it's based on actual practice, actual experience out there working in the music industry," student Randy Kelly says. "Playing different dates behind different celebrities and dealing with the rigors."
Still, TSU's jazz-studies program, which isn't part of a music college or school because neither exists at the financially challenged university, defines underdog. Prospective students are often lost to renowned programs at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, University of Houston's Moores School of Music and University of North Texas's College of Music.
"But they don't have Joe Sample," says the introspective and laid-back Young, a 1973 graduate of Jack Yates High School, "and we are hoping that, as word spreads about what is taking place here at TSU, the top students will come."
"I didn't get to sit with Mozart or Beethoven and hear it straight from the creator of the music," continues Young, an in-demand saxophonist who has performed with Aretha Franklin. "Working directly with the composer is one of the biggest things that can happen to a music student, hearing what his thoughts are on how the music should be presented, what his vision was when he was writing a certain passage. It is the rarest teaching moment."
For graduates pursuing a career in jazz, even those schooled by the accomplished Sample and Young, it's possible they'll be swallowed up in deep poverty and crushing depression, especially in the cutthroat scenes in New York City and Los Angeles.
But believe it or not, says local jazz percussionist Sebastian Whittaker, who bought his Houston-area house from the money he's made playing the drums, Houston might be the secret spot for jazz cats to make it financially and artistically.
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