Cover Story: A Brief History of Joe Sample and the Crusaders
Photos by Marco Torres
What a badass.
As chronicled in this week's cover story, there's a reason why Joe Sample is Texas Southern University's artist-in-residence at the school's jazz studies program -- and why he may be able to reinvent TSU's disgraced reputation.
Sample, a Fifth Ward native and Phillis Wheatley High School graduate who came back to his hometown of Houston in 2001, is one of the most accomplished pianists in modern music.
In 1958, Sample and the members of the Modern Jazz Sextet (Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson, Henry "La La" Wilson and Hubert Laws) ditched Houston to try to make it big in Los Angeles. Times were exciting yet hard, remembers Sample.
"We just took off one night and left here," he says. "Once we got there, I remember staying for a while at the house of Stix Hooper's aunt and uncle. Four of us shared one room with one bed and two mattresses on the floor. Man, we were just young and very hungry."
All but Laws would form the Jazz Crusaders (the name was an ode to percussionist Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers). In 1961, the band released its first album, the hard bop-centric Freedom Sound.
Eventually, the Jazz Crusaders would become the Crusaders. In 1971, that band -- featuring saxophonist Felder, trombonist Henderson, drummer Hooper, keyboardist Sample, and guitar and bass contributions from Arthur Adams -- would release Pass the Plate (Chisa), an accessible soul/jazz/funk album with rock and pop crossover potential.
"Way before Miles and Bitches Brew, I went to New York City about 1963 when the whole free jazz craze that Bitches Brew was an extension of sort of sprang from Ornette Coleman as the new hot thing," says Sample. "What I found there was that all these jazz players were now dressing in African clothing and many of them were changing their names to African names or Muslim names. I was like, 'What?'
"The new hip term for this free jazz style was 'out to lunch.' I just thought, 'This is stupid, man.' Free jazz went against almost everything that I thought of as good about jazz," says Sample. "You can blame it on what you want, but I think at the end of the day, we were men from southeast Texas -- which is different from being Southern -- and we all just went 'fuck that shit. How the hell did this become the new hip thing?'
"The music that was inside us came from our community, from what we heard in the Fifth Ward, what we heard at our little Creole church. When we were writing the songs for Pass The Plate, we were very conscious of how much of this is jazz, how much comes from our knowledge of classical music and blues. It was a mixture."
Sample and the Crusaders went on to major commercial success, which included opening for The Rolling Stones. In 1979, the band shifted to MCA and released Street Life with vocalist Randy Crawford. The album marked the pinnacle of the band's mainstream success, rising to number 18 on the Billboard pop charts and entering the top ten on the R&B charts.
"The free jazz guys despised us. I can't tell you how many times some guy would say, 'That ain't jazz.' The great satisfaction for us was that every time we'd drop a new record, it would do well in the charts almost immediately," Sample laughs. "They hated us, but we were selling records."
Former staff writer Steve Jansen contributed to this article.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.