Black History Month is always a great time to recall some of Houston's greatest musical innovators and leaders. Rocks Off will highlight some of them during the remainder of February.
"Hey, let's get back to that down-and-dirty old-school chicken-shack sound"
While Houston has produced its share of jazz and noted jazzmen, the Jazz Crusaders certainly rank as one of H-Town's top musical ensembles ever, in any style. The group originally consisted of pianist Joe Sample, drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper, sax man Wilton Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson.
Depending on whose history you believe, the Crusaders' origins lie in several groups that formed at Phyllis Wheatley High School in the mid-'50s, but the band truly came into its own when several core members studied at Texas Southern University. Yet by the time they had actually solidified their lineup and musical vision, they relocated to Los Angeles in 1960. The group settled on the name Jazz Crusaders in 1961 -according to Henderson's biography, as a tribute to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers - in time to release their first recording.
Freedom Sound and Looking Ahead, their first two albums for Los Angeles-based label Pacific Jazz, marked the auspicious arrival of these young Texas innovators, and today both of those albums stand as jazz classics. The band recorded a handful of albums for World Pacific Jazz before changing times caught up with them. The band shifted musical gears in the early 70s, dropping "Jazz" from the name in 1971 and becoming simply The Crusaders. They also moved away from the hard bebop style and incorporated funk and soul into the mix, adding guitarist, Larry Carlton and bassist Robert Popwell to flesh out the sound.
Pass The Plate, the explosive double-vinyl album (and first as The Crusaders) was a monster tour de force and a powerful statement of the band's new direction. It brought them to the attention of a much wider audience; fans included the Rolling Stones and Carlos Santana.
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Their popularity grew and the band maintained a blistering recording and performing pace, but Henderson left the band in 1975, reportedly to pursue producing other artists. In spite of other occasional personnel changes, The Crusaders continued to record frequently, and had their biggest chart success with 1979's Street Life, which reached No. 18 on Billboard's pop album chart. The title track made the Top 10 on the R&B singles chart and reached No. 36 on Billboard's Hot 100. In the 1990s, Henderson revived The Jazz Crusaders, and the group has since recorded several albums and do the occasional show. Joe Sample has had a huge session career outside the band, playing on literally hundreds of albums by artists ranging from Joni Mitchell and Joe Cocker to jazz diva Anita Baker.
Felder took up the bass guitar and has played behind artists from Billy Joel and John Cale to The Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye, as well as on historically important albums such as Randy Newman's Sail Away. Local music historian Dr. Roger Wood informs us that one of his favorite Crusaders albums is 2003's Rural Renewal, where the band nods vigorously to its Pass The Plate by revisiting "Greasy Spoon." "That album just blew me away," says Wood. "It sounds like they just decided hey, let's get back to that down-and-dirty old-school chicken-shack sound. To me, the album sounds like Houston." While Henderson did not join for the Rural Renewal sessions, world-class stars like Eric Clapton showed up to lend a hand. And the titles alone say much about the "Houston-ness" of the endeavor: "Creepin'," "Vive de Funk," "Greasy Spoon" and "Goin' Home." Wood also notes that while the other three members have pretty much cut their ties to Houston, Joe Sample still identifies heavily with the city and comes to town quite often to hang out.