It's a Saturday morning in January, and Joe Sample, casually dressed in a baby-blue polo and jeans, barks instructions inside of a matchbox-size rehearsal space at Texas Southern University, located on the Third Ward campus at Cleburne and Ennis streets.
"In black music, you come down on the one. You're putting the accent on the wrong beat," Sample says from behind an upright piano. The members of the student-centric Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra, crammed together in the tiny room inside the low-slung Rollins-Stewart Music Center, wait for further instructions from the gray- and charcoal-headed Sample, who sports a silver goatee that's neatly trimmed.
BLOGPOST: Cover Story: Joe Sample Attempts to Bring TSU Back to Relevancy
The jazz big band is running through Sample's "Buttermilk Sky," a horn-friendly, funk-driven, soul-jazz cut with a summer-day-at-the-park tempo. The song is reminiscent of a Sample-pioneered sound, which the Houston legend molded as a founding member of the Jazz Crusaders (later The Crusaders), and which snatched the attention of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and a good chunk of the jazz and rock worlds.
When the student band plays it to Sample's liking, the tune burns. Apparently, they're not quite there this morning.
"Ray Charles would say, 'You're fucking my shit up!' Don't be fucking my shit up," says the even-keeled yet blunt and expletive-prone Sample to a chorus of belly laughs.
At 74 years old, Sample, a Fifth Ward native and Phillis Wheatley High School graduate, is experiencing an uneasy retirement. Following six decades of performing and recording with the greats, including Marvin Gaye, Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Joni Mitchell, the pianist and keyboardist, citing health reasons, left his 40-year home of Los Angeles to come back to Houston in 2001.
For the past decade, Sample has remained musically active, traveling to Germany and Scandinavia to present his original music. But teaching at the collegiate level is a new gig for Sample, who has been earmarked to revive the shattered image of one of the nation's oldest and largest black universities. The once-proud jazz-studies program, which produced folks like soul-jazz flutist/pianist Bobbi Humphrey and smooth-jazz king Kirk Whalum, is a key element in TSU President John Rudley's renaissance plan to restore legitimacy to the university.
In the process — and at a school known more for the Ocean of Soul marching band than for any other type of music — a quality program has been quietly educating students, thanks to Sample, who landed on TSU's payroll after Rudley heard that the legendary musician was hanging out in the studio of KTSU-FM 90.9.
"I said, 'You mean one of the Crusaders is over at our radio station?' I jumped up and walked over there immediately. I met Joe and after we talked awhile, he agreed to explore some ways for him to contribute here," says Rudley, who swears he's cleared most of the hurdles threatening the university. "I don't think he'd ever considered teaching before, but I think he became intrigued by the idea that he had a storehouse of experience and skills to pass down."
In fall 2012, Sample joined the staff alongside TSU interim jazz-studies director and alum Horace Alexander Young, a heavy-hitting musician who had also left his native Houston, and Howard C. Harris, the founder of TSU's jazz-studies program. During Harris's 42-year tenure at the school, he has taught and worked with pop queen Beyoncé and Billboard-lauded gospel artist Yolanda Adams.
In the meantime, the students, who don't always fit the textbook version of a musician, are buying into the program's flexible teaching styles that emphasize real-world applications and not just a stuffy, by-the-sheet-music curriculum.
"[Young's] methodology isn't just based on theory; it's based on actual practice, actual experience out there working in the music industry," student Randy Kelly says. "Playing different dates behind different celebrities and dealing with the rigors."
Still, TSU's jazz-studies program, which isn't part of a music college or school because neither exists at the financially challenged university, defines underdog. Prospective students are often lost to renowned programs at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, University of Houston's Moores School of Music and University of North Texas's College of Music.
"But they don't have Joe Sample," says the introspective and laid-back Young, a 1973 graduate of Jack Yates High School, "and we are hoping that, as word spreads about what is taking place here at TSU, the top students will come."
"I didn't get to sit with Mozart or Beethoven and hear it straight from the creator of the music," continues Young, an in-demand saxophonist who has performed with Aretha Franklin. "Working directly with the composer is one of the biggest things that can happen to a music student, hearing what his thoughts are on how the music should be presented, what his vision was when he was writing a certain passage. It is the rarest teaching moment."
For graduates pursuing a career in jazz, even those schooled by the accomplished Sample and Young, it's possible they'll be swallowed up in deep poverty and crushing depression, especially in the cutthroat scenes in New York City and Los Angeles.
But believe it or not, says local jazz percussionist Sebastian Whittaker, who bought his Houston-area house from the money he's made playing the drums, Houston might be the secret spot for jazz cats to make it financially and artistically.
Texas Southern didn't start offering degrees in jazz studies until the early 2000s, but the school's longtime contributions to the art form are comparable to the Hall of Fame ballot talent churned out by a solid farm-league team.
As early as 1949, a jazz big band and a jazz combo made a joyful noise on the Third Ward campus. Eventually, big-band titan Duke Ellington took notice and plucked trumpeter Barrie Lee Hall Jr., who later conducted the Duke Ellington Orchestra, from the TSU Jazz Ensemble.
The university also helped launch the careers of Anita Moore, who spent 16 years singing with Ellington's ensemble; Houston-born flutist/saxophonist Hubert Laws, briefly a member of Sample's Crusaders; and smooth jazzer Whalum, a multiple Grammy winner and featured soloist on Whitney Houston's mega-platinum interpretation of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."
"[TSU] used to be one of the places to go for jazz studies," says percussionist and High School for the Performing and Visual Arts graduate Whittaker, who adds that the late Lanny Steele had the informal program cooking in the '70s. "I really don't know where it fell off or why it fell off...from what I can tell, in talks with Horace [Young] and others, is that they're trying to get back to what was lost."
As a whole, Texas Southern has not only lost, it has been pummeled and embarrassed in nearly every way imaginable.
In June 2006, then-TSU president Priscilla Slade was canned for allegedly misusing more than $500,000 of the school's money for personal expenses. She paid a fine and was placed on ten years' deferred adjudication following a plea agreement.
In September 2012, during National Hazing Prevention Week, the famed Ocean of Soul marching band, which is the only reason some folks attend TSU football games, was suspended after school officials discovered that trumpet-section members had been hazing one another with "excessive paddling." A month later, in an unrelated incident, TSU's football and men's basketball programs nearly received the death penalty, which bans a team from competing in games for a year or more, from the National Collegiate Athletic Association for "a lack of institutional control."
And this past December, former KTSU volunteer Michael Whitfield was arrested for swiping credit-card information from at least 50 KTSU donors during a pledge drive. (See the Rocks Off blog post "KTSU DJ Arrested for Suspected Credit Card Fraud" by William Michael Smith.) The 32-year-old, who remains locked up in a Harris County jail on a $200,000 bond, bought electronics and gift cards with the fraudulent info he acquired from the radio station, which has also been buddy-buddy with controversy ("All That Jazz," Steve Jansen, January 5, 2012).
Rudley, who replaced Slade in February 2008, says the school has moved past the scandals and can focus on attracting promising students and faculty as well as improving its facilities, including a hoped-for $1.4 million renovation to the historic Granville M. Sawyer Auditorium. Formerly Hannah Hall Auditorium, the on-campus venue once hosted greats like Stan Kenton, Ramsey Lewis and Prince.
Young, who declined comment on the school's previous screw-ups ("the most egregious violations took place prior to my being employed at Texas Southern," he says), admits that the jazz-studies program needs to cover some ground.
"The 300-pound elephant is North Texas, where the program is really strong right now," Young says about the Denton jazz-studies department that's often mentioned in the same sentence as Boston's Berklee College of Music and New Orleans's Tulane University.
According to University of North Texas professor and jazz-studies chair John Murphy, UNT has a jazz-studies staff of nearly 50 teachers (a dozen of whom are employed as full-time faculty) and an enrollment of about 250 students.
Compare that to the 105 students enrolled in TSU's entire music department.
For TSU's nascent jazz-studies program, which survives on general university funds, six staff members teach 40 in-state and out-of-state students, whose undergraduate tuition is about $8,717 and $16,946 per year, respectively. (UNT charges an additional $1,110 for Texas residents and $2,300 for non-residents.) Young and TSU College of Liberal Arts and Behaviorial Sciences Dean Danille Taylor refused to give the Houston Press any departmental budget figures.
In addition to UNT's modest operating budget — "music programs in general are more expensive to run than English but less expensive than engineering," Murphy says — $20,000 was dedicated to the school's fall 2012 guest artist program. Since 1982, the series has brought in jazz heroes such as Dizzy Gillepsie, Sam Rivers and Dave Brubeck for performances and workshops.
Along with the elite guest artist program and a skilled faculty, Murphy says, North Texas's success can be attributed to a critical mass of students. While the school has its share of nationwide and international talent — UNT partners with conservatories in Spain and Sweden — 70 percent of UNT's College of Music students are from right here in Texas.
During a rehearsal break at TSU, Sample, who has recently performed in Europe, struggles to stand up from the piano bench. Though his back might feel sore and weak from the intercontinental flights, his handshake is as strong as an oak tree, a result of nearly 70 years of piano practice that Sample started at age five while growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward.
As a TSU instructor, Sample has completed the circle he started in 1958 when he and fellow Fifth Ward natives Wilton Felder, Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson, Henry "La La" Wilson and Hubert Laws, at that time known as the Modern Jazz Sextet, ditched TSU for Los Angeles. "Four of us shared one room with one bed and two mattresses on the floor. Man, we were just young and very hungry," remembers Sample.
In 1960, all but Laws and Wilson formed the Jazz Crusaders, which dovetailed into the Crusaders. Whereas Miles Davis operated in an extemporaneous, improvisational format with rock instruments, the Crusaders put a smooth Southern spin on jazz-rock with 1971's Pass the Plate, considered by many to be the first jazz-funk album. It startled the jazz world and grabbed the attention of mainstream rock fans.
Noe Marmolejo, director of jazz studies at UH's Moores School, views the landmark album as a significant shift for jazz musicians.
"After Pass the Plate, lots of jazz players were in demand to tour with rock bands or work sessions with rock bands. So for a while there, it became easier to make a living, and that kept a lot of people in the game who might've dropped out otherwise," says Marmolejo.
By the mid-1970s, the group found themselves touring with the Rolling Stones. The Crusaders' 1974 African tour became a frenzied celebration of world music. Paris swooned, London welcomed and The Beatles were fans.
In the late '70s, Sample experienced an existential crisis when the band, sans Henderson, moved to the MCA record label. "Suddenly, we had the accountants and suits telling us what to do. Nothing was the same after that," says Sample, who believes that the births of hip-hop and punk rock were negative blows to jazz.
Complicating the situation: All of those jam-packed years of performing and touring started to ruin Sample's health. A second heart attack in 1995 — Sample has a congenital condition in which his liver manufactures too much cholesterol — was the impetus for his Houston relocation.
"I was really thinking about New Orleans until [R&B and soul singer] Aaron Neville told me his astrologer had told him that he had a vision of New Orleans as a huge lake. Finally, things just fell into place, and I decided to come home," says Sample, who lives in Clear Lake with his wife, Yolanda.
"I think it's safe to say that in this business, I've just about done it all. Everything from cattle-call auditions in L.A. to concerts in Zaire. I've played shitty gigs, and I've played in stadiums," says Sample, who was awarded an honorary PhD by TSU even though he never graduated from the school. "My mission at TSU is to pass that experience on to the next generation, who will keep this thing alive and real."
For students like saxophone protégé and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native Jordan Donald, 22, the impact of working with a master musician like Sample has been the best experience.
"What impressed me is how exacting he is," Donald says about Sample. "That man is so serious about this...the reason he is so demanding and can get so irritated is that when his music gets played, he wants the audience to get the feeling he had when he wrote it.
"That search for how to play those compositions and get the feeling across, that was a huge eye-opener for me. That's probably the lesson I'll always remember that I got from Mr. Sample," Donald says.
Until his senior year in high school, music was an afterthought for Horace Young, who participated on Yates's football and track teams. That changed when the Houston native, now a bald and sharply dressed adult who looks a decade younger than his 59 years, saturated himself in all aspects of TSU's music program.
After earning his bachelor's at TSU in 1978, he started his advanced studies at Rice's Shepherd School but quit to become a freelance musician and teacher. From the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, Young predominantly lived and worked in New York City, collaborating with Anita Baker, Bill Withers and the popular South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (a.k.a. Dollar Brand).
After relocating to tiny Pullman, Washington, to teach woodwinds and coordinate the music business degree program at Washington State University (where he had finished his master's studies in 1983), Young was offered the TSU gig shortly after returning to H-town for family reasons in 2008.
"It represented a chance to contribute to the environment that helped make me what I am," says Young, who leads the Jazz Experience Big Band and teaches combos, improvisation and jazz theory. Young, a divorced parent of an 18-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, lives in Houston.
Instead of enrolling in the jazz-studies program, Donald, the up-and-coming saxophonist, majored in communications for practical reasons. Before Young's appointment and Sample's arrival, Donald, on track to walk after the spring semester, struggled to find a point to college.
"[Young] took a real interest in me, in helping me deal with school, helping me develop my skills," says Donald. "I think if he hadn't come into the picture, I'd have left school and not finished my degree."
Even musically accomplished students like Grammy Award-winning Randy Kelly are finding tremendous value at TSU. The 46-year-old University of Louisiana-Lafayette graduate was told by his alma mater that he was a shoo-in for the school's graduate program. Instead, the native of small-town Franklin, Louisiana, who helped Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band take home a bronze statuette for "Best Cajun or Zydeco" album in 2011, decided to continue his double-bass studies at TSU.
"It's great to be a student here. We're all motivated by them and their real-world experience. You get to apply a lot of what you've learned," says Kelly, who has locked down steady gigs at the Big Easy performing with Luther and the Healers and as a string bassist with the Houston Civic Symphony.
Before visiting TSU's music building on a whim, Phoenix-born, Houston-raised bass player Sonia Flores, 32, decided against transferring from San Jacinto Community College North to Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, or Boston's New England Conservatory.
"So I stayed in Houston, took a year off and slowly went into a depression in which I questioned the validity of studying music," says Flores. "After a year of that, I decided to do something about my doubts and frustrations with music. TSU had always been in the back of my mind, but I had never pursued it."
When she met Harris, he hired her on the spot to perform with members of the TSU Ensemble. Once she was into the meat of her studies, her worries vanished after she began studying with nurturing professors like Young and Latin Jazz Ensemble leader Marvin Sparks Jr.
"They have so much knowledge and expertise on the subject. Some of them have played with the greats, in turn making them great. It's amazing how I can write a tune and present it to Professor Young. He'll hear it and instantaneously know what I was trying to accomplish," explains Flores.
"To be honest, I am not even sure other colleges would've wanted to deal with me. I am not your typical music student," she says.
The American premiere of Sample's Children of the Sun suite and the public unveiling of TSU's Joe Sample Jazz Orchestra went off without any major hitches on December 9. But only a few rows of the massive, soon-to-be-renovated Sawyer Auditorium were occupied. If TSU was banking on shows like this to spark interest in the program, they had to be disappointed by the sad turnout.
"We're just dipping our toe in the water," says Rudley, focusing on the positive. "For an idea that we only began putting into motion six months ago, I'm very pleased with the results."
Just because TSU didn't put a lot of butts in the seats for the concert doesn't mean that Houston is a jazz wasteland, especially for its players. Percussionist Whittaker, once heavy in the New York scene, brings in a healthy income playing the drums at local spots and teaching performance and percussion ensemble at the Spring Branch campus of Houston Community College.
"The thing about teaching is, you have to get yourself into a good situation that won't take away from your performing, such as time schedule and flexibility," says Whittaker, who's been able to establish a record label as well as a healthy relationship with a Houston recording studio.
In Whittaker's opinion, Houston has only one "legitimate" jazz club in Cezanne, located on Montrose Boulevard near West Main Street, but there are enough players in town to form bands that can go on short- and long-term tours before returning to Houston's cheap living. "I wouldn't be able to do a lot of things in New York, because I'd be concentrating on how I'm going to live," he says.
On track to graduate in the spring, the Grammy-winning Kelly is definitely set on Houston and plans to apply for teaching gigs at TSU, HCC, and the Houston and Galveston independent school districts. Flores, who has routinely performed creative music in David Dove's They, Who Sound series at AvantGarden on Westheimer in Montrose, says she'll continue presenting her original music to local audiences while pursuing a master's at TSU.
Meanwhile, saxophonist Donald, armed with Sample-provided know-how, is going the L.A. route. "He's inspired me as a role model, the way he carries himself, the attitude he brings to this," says Donald.
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He won't be the only one with intense memories of Sample. During a late November rehearsal, Sample started getting on the case of a young drummer named Jalen Baker, who's reminiscent of Family Matters sitcom character Steve Urkel.
"Son, you've got to make her happy," Sample said to Baker about female pianist Britney Bloom. "Right now, she probably doesn't even want to take a solo. Make this woman happy; she's working hard."
Baker smiled and nodded. That day, he wasn't going to say anything, but years from now, in front of his bandmates inside the green room or during a private lesson he's teaching to a fledgling musician, he might brag: "And right in front of the entire band, Joe Sample was chewing out my ass."