Joe Sample is on a mission. While the illustrious keyboard genius behind the Crusaders continues to expand his career and is as in-demand at 75 as at any point in his life, these days he balances his commercial career with good works.
Inducted into the Houston Music Hall of Fame's inaugural class at last month's Houston Press Music Awards, Sample just released a new recording with his Creole Joe Band (see video below), a zydeco project that is dear to his heart. He test-drove the project earlier this year on some dates in Japan, then debuted the band in the U.S. a couple weeks back at Dosey Doe in The Woodlands before heading to New York City, where crowds at the Blue Note exceeded Sample's expectations.
Those who read the Houston Press' cover story on Sample's return to his alma mater, Texas Southern University, already know he spends a portion of his year teaching and developing upcoming talent. Sample's charity work is less visible, but is another important element in his division of labor.
This Saturday night, Sample brings his augmented ensemble to Galveston's Grand 1894 Opera House for his annual Henriette DeLille Legacy Concert; proceeds benefit his 503-C charity, the Joe Sample Youth Organization. Rocks Off caught up with Sample at the tail end of the Creole Joe East Coast tour in Annapolis, Maryland.
Rocks Off: What does the money from your show Saturday benefit? Joe Sample: It benefits three Catholic churches here in Houston that are dear to my heart.
How did it start? When I moved back here in 1999, I was so saddened to see what had become of the small Catholic schools that I was educated in and to the various churches in the wards. I grew up in Fifth Ward, and I was educated by nuns at Our Mother of Mercy.
These were nuns sent out from an order in New Orleans that originated with Sister Henriette DeLille. These black nuns taught at Our Mother of Mercy. It wasn't until years later I learned that they taught for free, that they weren't paid.
And it was a high-quality education? Listen, I was so well schooled by these nuns, when I went to public school in ninth grade they had me skip a grade I was so well prepared. You have to understand, these nuns did such a great job with me, I entered TSU in 1955 when I was only 16. That's how good the teaching was.
RO: So what led you to form the charity? When I came back home in 1999, I began to get back in touch with the church where I had grown up. By that time, the school had been shut down because it was one of the poorest performing schools in the state. I eventually learned that they no longer had nuns teaching for free, that no new nuns were coming into the convent, so they eventually just couldn't afford to hire the good teachers or to keep up their facilities. I can't tell you how much this bothered me.
Not long after I got back, a man at St. Mary's in the Third Ward said, "Why don't you do a benefit?" So I organized a jam in the cafeteria and it made about $1,800. So word got around and other people started coming to me. 'Why don't you do a benefit for this church, why don't you do one for this other church?'
So I thought it over and said that I would do one major benefit event each year and the money would be split among three local churches. So in five years, we've been able to raise a quarter million dollars. We've developed some playgrounds, bought equipment. We built a kitchen at one school, developed some walkways so kids could change classes without going out into the rain, fixed a roof [and] added some air-conditioning. Nuts-and-bolts stuff schools and kids need, you know?
More with Creole Joe on the next page.
You've called this the Henriette DeLille Legacy. What does that mean to you? It's very hard for me to express what my schooling meant to me. I started at Our Mother of Mercy when I was five in 1944. The feeling those nuns instilled in us for learning, for art, for our fellow beings, I just can't express what that did to my personal makeup. But I realized how much I owe for that, that I have to do something to pay back for what I was given.
I see my legacy, our legacy, as a duty to educate, educate, educate. We have to do a better job of educating our children if we're going to move forward as a city, as a society. To me, that's not even arguable. So when I started thinking along the lines of what kind of charity work I could do, education was the first thing that came to my mind. It is so important.
Sister Henriette DeLille founded the order of nuns who were sent to teach us and, as you know, she has been put forward for canonization. If she is approved, she would be the first female black saint. I've been doing a lot of research and reading about the canonization process, and I became what is called a witness to the canonization. I've been sworn in by a representative of the Vatican and I've given my witness. I didn't know this, but it's up to the community to push the canonization forward and it's up to the Vatican to disprove.
The community has to step forward with its evidence, and the Vatican's role is actually to investigate the history and circumstances and testimony with an eye toward not approving the canonization. It's an exacting and highly formal process.
The last time we spoke, you were making efforts to get your musical based on Ms. DeLille's life staged. Where does that stand?
I was hoping some local theater company would want to develop it, but I haven't made much headway there, so I'm now in the process of putting together some readings. There is a small group of local black businessmen who are putting up some money so we can do a series of readings and work the piece into shape for what I hope will eventually be a stage presentation.
I've already recorded some advanced demos of seven of the pieces with Jonatha Brooke, a respected New York vocalist. So we're making progress slowly, but we aren't there yet.
What can people who come to the show Saturday night expect? I'll be there with my regular rhythm section, Raymond Weber on drums and my son Nick Sample on bass. I'm augmenting that with Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, Dr. Horace Alexander Young [TSU Interim Director of Jazz Studies] on sax and Andre Hayward [another TSU graduate] on trombone.
We're going to start with a few numbers where we will support a student ensemble, then we'll bring in the Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra. They'll be doing some Crusaders pieces and some of my other compositions. I've actually dug back through my archives and rediscovered some of my old Crusaders arrangements, so we'll be bringing those back.
Then we'll bring out Jewel Brown, our featured vocalist for the evening. Jewel and I came up together, so we are going to revisit some of the old tunes we used to do in the '50s when we were just starting out, tunes like "Further On Up the Road" and "Next Time You See Me," old blues standards we all love. She has such a unique voice, so I've rearranged some of these to fit her style and phrasing.
When you get to our age, getting to do things like this are the dream really coming true.
You just played some dates at the Blue Note in New York with the Creole Joe Band. How did that go? The Creole Joe Band took New York by storm. The audience and reception was just unbelievable. My manager came up to me after the show and said 'I never saw you so relaxed and happy on stage before.' I told him it was probably because most of the time he's seen me on stage I'm perturbed about something, usually either a bass player or a drummer messin' up the groove.
But the Creole Joe thing is just working beautifully right now. And a zydeco record and band of my own, that's the fulfillment of another lifelong dream.
The Henriette DeLille Legacy Concert is 8 p.m. this Saturday, September 28, at the Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St., Galveston; see thegrand.com for other details.
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