The New Crusaders

TSU restarts its jazz program, tapping into the talents of the fabled Joe Sample and kids looking for a place to play.

Texas Southern didn't start offering degrees in jazz studies until the early 2000s, but the school's longtime contributions to the art form are comparable to the Hall of Fame ballot talent churned out by a solid farm-league team.

As early as 1949, a jazz big band and a jazz combo made a joyful noise on the Third Ward campus. Eventually, big-band titan Duke Ellington took notice and plucked trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall Jr., who later conducted the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from the TSU Jazz Ensemble.

The university also helped launch the careers of Anita Moore, who spent 16 years singing with Ellington's ensemble; Houston-born flutist/saxophonist Hubert Laws, briefly a member of Sample's Crusaders; and smooth jazzer Whalum, a multiple Grammy winner and featured soloist on Whitney Houston's mega-platinum interpretation of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."

Despite a well-executed concert, only a handful of folks bothered to show up to the Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra's opening salvo at Sawyer Auditorium on December 9.
Photo by Marco Torres
Despite a well-executed concert, only a handful of folks bothered to show up to the Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra's opening salvo at Sawyer Auditorium on December 9.

"[TSU] used to be one of the places to go for jazz studies," says percussionist and High School for the Performing and Visual Arts graduate Whittaker, who adds that the late Lanny Steele had the informal program cooking in the '70s. "I really don't know where it fell off or why it fell off...from what I can tell, in talks with Horace [Young] and others, is that they're trying to get back to what was lost."

As a whole, Texas Southern has not only lost, it has been pummeled and embarrassed in nearly every way imaginable.

In June 2006, then-TSU president Priscilla Slade was canned for allegedly misusing more than $500,000 of the school's money for personal expenses. She paid a fine and was placed on ten years' deferred adjudication following a plea agreement.

In September 2012, during National Hazing Prevention Week, the famed Ocean of Soul marching band, which is the only reason some folks attend TSU football games, was suspended after school officials discovered that trumpet-section members had been hazing one another with "excessive paddling." A month later, in an unrelated incident, TSU's football and men's basketball programs nearly received the death penalty, which bans a team from competing in games for a year or more, from the National Collegiate Athletic Association for "a lack of institutional control."

And this past December, former KTSU volunteer Michael Whitfield was arrested for swiping credit-card information from at least 50 KTSU donors during a pledge drive. (See the Rocks Off blog post "KTSU DJ Arrested for Suspected Credit Card Fraud" by William Michael Smith.) The 32-year-old, who remains locked up in a Harris County jail on a $200,000 bond, bought electronics and gift cards with the fraudulent info he acquired from the radio station, which has also been buddy-buddy with controversy ("All That Jazz," Steve Jansen, January 5, 2012).

Rudley, who replaced Slade in February 2008, says the school has moved past the scandals and can focus on attracting promising students and faculty as well as improving its facilities, including a hoped-for $1.4 million renovation to the historic Granville M. Sawyer Auditorium. Formerly Hannah Hall Auditorium, the on-campus venue once hosted greats like Stan Kenton, Ramsey Lewis and Prince.

Young, who declined comment on the school's previous screw-ups ("the most egregious violations took place prior to my being employed at Texas Southern," he says), admits that the jazz-studies program needs to cover some ground.

"The 300-pound elephant is North Texas, where the program is really strong right now," Young says about the Denton jazz-studies department that's often mentioned in the same sentence as Boston's Berklee College of Music and New Orleans's Tulane University.

According to University of North Texas professor and jazz-studies chair John Murphy, UNT has a jazz-studies staff of nearly 50 teachers (a dozen of whom are employed as full-time faculty) and an enrollment of about 250 students.

Compare that to the 105 students enrolled in TSU's entire music department.

For TSU's nascent jazz-studies program, which survives on general university funds, six staff members teach 40 in-state and out-of-state students, whose undergraduate tuition is about $8,717 and $16,946 per year, respectively. (UNT charges an additional $1,110 for Texas residents and $2,300 for non-residents.) Young and TSU College of Liberal Arts and Behaviorial Sciences Dean Danille Taylor refused to give the Houston Press any departmental budget figures.

In addition to UNT's modest operating budget — "music programs in general are more expensive to run than English but less expensive than engineering," Murphy says — $20,000 was dedicated to the school's fall 2012 guest artist program. Since 1982, the series has brought in jazz heroes such as Dizzy Gillepsie, Sam Rivers and Dave Brubeck for performances and workshops.

Along with the elite guest artist program and a skilled faculty, Murphy says, North Texas's success can be attributed to a critical mass of students. While the school has its share of nationwide and international talent — UNT partners with conservatories in Spain and Sweden — 70 percent of UNT's College of Music students are from right here in Texas.

During a rehearsal break at TSU, Sample, who has recently performed in Europe, struggles to stand up from the piano bench. Though his back might feel sore and weak from the intercontinental flights, his handshake is as strong as an oak tree, a result of nearly 70 years of piano practice that Sample started at age five while growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward.

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