The Sample Truth
Joe Sample, considered a pioneer in contemporary jazz, laughs while he talks about growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward area. "I was six years old, and my priest asked me what I was going to do with my life. I told him, 'I want to play the piano.' I don't know why I said that, I just did. I just knew it was something I had to do."
Sample, of course, did go on to play the piano, co-founding the famed Jazz Crusaders (later known as the Crusaders) before leading his own groups. Both a leader and a sideman on multiple gold and platinum albums, Sample continues to record and tour the world after more than 40 years in the business. While that might be enough for some men, he says he still has more work to do, including annual fundraising concerts for his nonprofit youth organization and writing a musical for Broadway.
"I wouldn't attempt to do what Bono [from U2] is doing with AIDS and poverty on a worldwide level," he says. "I couldn't do anything like that. But I am very concerned about schooling in the United States today. I think our young people are being betrayed, and I want to do something about that.
"I am not a rock star, I'm not a pop star," he says. "I don't have a million dollars, but if I was a rock star or a pop star and had millions and millions of dollars, I would certainly go into Fifth Ward and help the church."
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The church Sample is talking about is Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, which Sample's father, Alexander Sample, helped to found 76 years ago. "Our Mother of Mercy was one of the first Creole Catholic schools here...Throughout the years, with all of my travels and everything, I never forgot about the early education that I had there. It was home for me," he says.
Sample, who graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1956 and entered Texas Southern University the next year at the age of 16, says he's disappointed with the quality of education in America today. "I thought that 50 years after I got out of school, we would be further along. I thought after segregation was over, I'd see an end to second-class education for our young people. But if anything it has gotten worse.
"During the 1980s I went on a tour of black colleges and universities, all through the Carolinas and Louisiana, Mississippi. And what I saw at these black colleges and universities appalled me, especially what I saw in the music departments. I knew we were letting those students down," he says. "Then when I came back to Houston in '97 and I saw the conditions of the Catholic schools, I was even more upset. One thing that just shook me up, that just ignited me, was [going] into the boys' restroom at St. Mary's. It was terrible. We're letting our babies go into these toilets that are falling down and broken? We don't put our kids in this junk, shame on us!" he says.
"I could hear my father in my head: 'Boy, if you don't go back over there and help these people, I will haunt you for the rest of your life!' I knew I had to do something about that, I just had to."
The opportunity to do something about that appeared soon after. "Somebody asked me if I would help raise funds for playground materials for St. Mary's, and of course I did," he says. "Then I had another request to do the same thing again, then, all of the sudden, one for Our Mother of Mercy and then St. Peter's, too. I said, 'Now wait a minute, this is getting out of hand.'...So, eventually I decided to do just one big show."
That led to the Joe Sample Youth Organization, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds for Houston's five inner-city African-American Catholic schools. The organization's major fund-raising event is the annual Henriette Delille Legacy Concert featuring the Joe Sample Trio, held in Galveston's Grand 1894 Opera House.
The Legacy Concert series is named after Henriette Delille, the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family religious order. A free woman of color born in New Orleans in the early 1800s, Delille wanted to become a nun but was denied because she was of mixed race. Undaunted, she instead founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, the first African-American order in Louisiana.
Twelve years ago, Joe Sample couldn't have known what importance Delille would come to have in his life. In 1994, recovering from heart surgery and unable to tour, Sample decided to try his hand at writing a musical with the hope of taking it to Broadway. By chance he contacted the Sisters of the Holy Family and asked them to send him copies of their archives, hoping to find a story for his musical.
"So, they sent me a package -- I didn't know the archives were all in French -- and when I opened it, I thought, 'These nuns must think God sent me to them.' I had walked into a canonization process." Sample had coincidentally contacted the Sisters of the Holy Family just as they were beginning proceedings for Sister Henriette Delille to be considered for sainthood. He had found the story for his musical.
"Of course, it wasn't an accident," says Sample. "There have been too many coincidences for that; it's all really been very woo-woo."
Woo-woo? That's Sample's term for serendipity.
"Here's a woo-woo for you," Sample laughs. "[My first writing partner] for the musical had written for the Gunsmoke television series for almost 20 years. One day he says, 'Joe, did I ever tell you how I got into Hollywood?...He told me, 'I wrote the episode where the black nuns from New Orleans walked to Dodge City!' (Laughs) Woo-woo, right?"
But that's not all. Sample describes how he teamed up with his new partner. "One day he told his agent, 'I'm having these dreams, over and over, and they are getting on my nerves. They're waking me up in the middle of the night, it's terrible. I keep dreaming that I'm drowning and these black nuns keep coming to save me.' His agent knew what I was working on and she just fell out of her chair! See, how woo-woo is that?"
Sample continues his recording and touring schedule, sandwiching in work on the musical and the annual Legacy concert as he can. But he insists that while he's pursuing other goals besides his career as a jazz artist, his main objective hasn't changed. He is still, first and foremost, a pianist. Is he an activist? Yes. A hopeful Broadway composer? Yes. But those projects, while seemingly different from his jazz career, are, in fact, efforts toward the same end. Says Sample: "All that is just me going the full circle in my culture."
The Henriette Delille Legacy Concert featuring the Joe Sample Trio with special guest Lalah Hathaway will be held Saturday, September 30, at the Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Post Office Street, Galveston Island, 409-763-7173. Proceeds from this event will benefit St. Mary of the Purification Montessori, Our Mother of Mercy and St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Schools.
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