Blue Notes

Soul City: The Amazing Jazz Crusaders

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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William Michael Smith