Note: this Christmas, Rocks Off is remembering some prominent members of Houston's music community we lost this year.
Joe Sample, the Houston native whose masterful keyboard playing made him a leading figure in the jazz fusion movement of the '60s and '70s and a top session musician in jazz, R&B and pop for several decades, passed away September 12, according to his Facebook page. His family announced his death with the following message:
[Wife] Yolanda and his son Nicklas would like to thank all of you, his fans and friends, for your prayers and support during this trying time. Please know that Joe was aware and very appreciative of all of your prayers, comments, letters/cards and well wishes.
Sample was a graduate of Wheatley High School, where he and some classmates founded a group they called the Jazz Crusaders in the mid-'50s. They moved to Southern California in the early '60s and became one of the most popular and respected groups in jazz thanks to albums like Freedom Sound and Looking Ahead. In the '70s, as their sound incorporated more and more elements of funk and R&B, the group changed its name to the Crusaders. Sample also took plenty of jobs on the side, appearing on classic pop-rock albums such as Joni Mitchell's Court & Spark, Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On and Canned Heat's Up the Country. It was not easy work, he told the Houston Press in 2013:
"The producers were so good, there might be 30 guys working on a take and if one person hit a bad note, the producer would scream, 'Are you ruining my session?'" he said. "It could be pretty unnerving to some people."
Sample moved back to Houston in 2001 and eventually was named artist-in-residence at Texas Southern University's Jazz Studies program. Until recently, he continued to tour extensively in Europe and perform with his new group, the Creole Joe Zydeco Band.
For the past 16 years, Sample had been collaborating with New England folk singer Jonatha Brooke on QUADROON, a biography of Henriette DeLille, a 19th-century New Orleans nun whom the Vatican declared "venerable" in 2010 and remains under consideration for sainthood. After originally being rejected by the church, DeLille founded her own unofficial order that went on to establish an orphanage, a nursing home and network of schools across the Gulf Coast, including one in Fifth Ward.
QUADROON held its first stage reading in July at the Ensemble Theater. Following is an excerpt from the Press' cover story when Sample was inducted into the Houston Music Hall of Fame last year:
Joe Sample is a Houston legend, but a hard-working one. Fifty years on from departing Houston for L.A. and 40 years on from the Crusaders' groundbreaking jazz-funk album Pass the Plate, Sample is still touring the world, much in demand as a keyboardist and composer. His most recent travels have taken him to Montreux, Switzerland, and concert halls across Italy.
Sample moved back to the Clear Lake area ten years ago, and now spends most of his time at home working as artist in residence at his alma mater, Texas Southern University. There, he fronts the Joe Sample Select Orchestra and works on special projects as well as performing with his small ensemble, the Creole Joe Band, which includes such luminaries as C.J. Chenier and Ray Parker Jr.
The lifelong musician took up piano at age five, studying under renowned classical pianist Curtis Mayo. By the time he was in high school, Sample had formed the Swingsters, predecessors of the Jazz Crusaders, with fellow Wheatley High School students Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder. Also while still in high school, Sample augmented his experience and his wallet by working on the road with master song stylist Ivory Joe Hunter.
But it was Sample's go-for-broke move to Los Angeles in 1960 that led to worldwide fame. After a decade of hard bebop-style playing and albums, the Jazz Crusaders dropped the "Jazz" part of their name and dropped Pass the Plate in 1971, forever altering jazz and popular music. Suddenly, from Zaire to New York City to Paris, the world was the Crusaders' oyster.
Yet each member of the band had other goals and career aspirations, and they began to work as L.A. session musicians. For his part, Sample played and recorded with an amazingly diverse list of performers, from Joni Mitchell to Diana Ross, Tina Turner to Willie Nelson.
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