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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.

Even musically accomplished students like Grammy Award-­winning Randy Kelly are finding tremendous value at TSU. The 46-year-old University of Louisiana-Lafayette graduate was told by his alma mater that he was a shoo-in for the school's graduate program. Instead, the native of small-town Franklin, Louisiana, who helped Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band take home a bronze statuette for "Best Cajun or Zydeco" album in 2011, decided to continue his double-bass studies at TSU.

"It's great to be a student here. We're all motivated by them and their real-world experience. You get to apply a lot of what you've learned," says Kelly, who has locked down steady gigs at the Big Easy performing with Luther and the Healers and as a string bassist with the Houston Civic Symphony.

Before visiting TSU's music building on a whim, Phoenix-born, Houston-raised bass player Sonia Flores, 32, decided against transferring from San Jacinto Community College North to Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, or Boston's New England Conservatory.

Joe Sample, who became a heavy-hitting jazz musician after leaving his native Houston in 1958, leads a big-band rehearsal at Texas Southern University. The Crusaders' co-founder, hired by TSU President John Rudley in fall 2012, is currently TSU's jazz-studies program's artist-in-residence.
Photo by Marco Torres
Joe Sample, who became a heavy-hitting jazz musician after leaving his native Houston in 1958, leads a big-band rehearsal at Texas Southern University. The Crusaders' co-founder, hired by TSU President John Rudley in fall 2012, is currently TSU's jazz-studies program's artist-in-residence.
Sample breaks down a piece of music for TSU student and pianist Britney Bloom. The university, which is attempting to reinvent itself following a series of public embarrassments, competes for the best students with the music schools at Rice University, University of Houston and University of North Texas.
Photo by Marco Torres
Sample breaks down a piece of music for TSU student and pianist Britney Bloom. The university, which is attempting to reinvent itself following a series of public embarrassments, competes for the best students with the music schools at Rice University, University of Houston and University of North Texas.

"So I stayed in Houston, took a year off and slowly went into a depression in which I questioned the validity of studying music," says Flores. "After a year of that, I decided to do something about my doubts and frustrations with music. TSU had always been in the back of my mind, but I had never pursued it."

When she met Harris, he hired her on the spot to perform with members of the TSU Ensemble. Once she was into the meat of her studies, her worries vanished after she began studying with nurturing professors like Young and Latin Jazz Ensemble leader Marvin Sparks Jr.

"They have so much knowledge and expertise on the subject. Some of them have played with the greats, in turn making them great. It's amazing how I can write a tune and present it to Professor Young. He'll hear it and instantaneously know what I was trying to accomplish," explains Flores.

"To be honest, I am not even sure other colleges would've wanted to deal with me. I am not your typical music student," she says.
_____________________

The American premiere of Sample's Children of the Sun suite and the public unveiling of TSU's Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra went off without any major hitches on December 9. But only a few rows of the massive, soon-to-be-renovated Sawyer Auditorium were occupied. If TSU was banking on shows like this to spark interest in the program, they had to be disappointed by the sad turnout.

"We're just dipping our toe in the water," says Rudley, focusing on the positive. "For an idea that we only began putting into motion six months ago, I'm very pleased with the results."

Just because TSU didn't put a lot of butts in the seats for the concert doesn't mean that Houston is a jazz wasteland, especially for its players. Percussionist Whittaker, once heavy in the New York scene, brings in a healthy income playing the drums at local spots and teaching performance and percussion ensemble at the Spring Branch campus of Houston Community College.

"The thing about teaching is, you have to get yourself into a good situation that won't take away from your performing, such as time schedule and flexibility," says Whittaker, who's been able to establish a record label as well as a healthy relationship with a Houston recording studio.

In Whittaker's opinion, Houston has only one "legitimate" jazz club in Cezanne, located on Montrose Boulevard near West Main Street, but there are enough players in town to form bands that can go on short- and long-term tours before returning to Houston's cheap living. "I wouldn't be able to do a lot of things in New York, because I'd be concentrating on how I'm going to live," he says.

On track to graduate in the spring, the Grammy-winning Kelly is definitely set on Houston and plans to apply for teaching gigs at TSU, HCC, and the Houston and Galveston independent school districts. Flores, who has routinely performed creative music in David Dove's They, Who Sound series at AvantGarden on Westheimer in Montrose, says she'll continue presenting her original music to local audiences while pursuing a master's at TSU.

Meanwhile, saxophonist Donald, armed with Sample-provided know-how, is going the L.A. route. "He's inspired me as a role model, the way he carries himself, the attitude he brings to this," says Donald.

He won't be the only one with intense memories of Sample. During a late November rehearsal, Sample started getting on the case of a young drummer named Jalen Baker, who's reminiscent of Family Matters sitcom character Steve Urkel.

"Son, you've got to make her happy," Sample said to Baker about female pianist Britney Bloom. "Right now, she probably doesn't even want to take a solo. Make this woman happy; she's working hard."

Baker smiled and nodded. That day, he wasn't going to say anything, but years from now, in front of his bandmates inside the green room or during a private lesson he's teaching to a fledgling musician, he might brag: "And right in front of the entire band, Joe Sample was chewing out my ass."

steve.jansen@houstonpress.com

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