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The Jazz Crusaders & Joe Sample: The Next Crusade

Joe Sample and the Jazz Crusaders
The Jazz Crusaders & Joe Sample

We’re in the midst of winter, but it’s another breathtaking San Fernando Valley day, the temperature nestling in the mid-’70s. From the large conference room in the Verve Music Group’s West Coast offices there is a gorgeous view of Burbank through the near-panoramic windows.

Reunited Crusaders keyboardist Joe Sample and saxophonist/bassist Wilton Felder can survey the landscape as they persevere through a “press day.” It’s a grind for the veteran musicians, and they politely repeat themselves many times during a seemingly endless barrage of questions. But that vista constantly reminded them that there are a lot of other things they’d rather being doing.

Still, Sample, who divides his time among Houston, Mammoth, Calif., and Santa Monica, Calif., is in great spirits and eager to talk. Los Angeles resident Felder is a bit more reticent and at times has to be prompted to participate, which is somewhat surprising because he has always been the heart and soul of the Crusaders.

In fact, the Crusaders are the only group of which Felder’s ever been a full-time member, remaining stalwartly dedicated to it even as trombonist Wayne Henderson, drummer Stix Hooper and Sample departed the band at different junctures. Sample, on the other hand, has enjoyed an impressive solo career for more than 25 years.

In 1954, Sample teamed with high school friends Felder and Hooper to form the Swingsters in Houston, which evolved into the Jazz Crusaders in 1960 when the group moved to Los Angeles. What brings these two bandmates together in 2003, however, is Sample’s return to the Crusaders-something he once vowed would never happen. Fans, media, industry types and fellow musicians have been buzzing about the reuniting Sample, Felder and Hooper, who left the band in 1983.

Sample is eager to clear the air concerning the group’s identity and expound on the new CD, Rural Renewal (PRA/Verve), and its supporting tour. “I don’t call this a reunion,” he boldly proclaims, bearing a scowl that reinforces his distaste for the connotation being applied to the Crusaders. “A reunion to me means you’re going to rehash what you did at some point in the past. I call this a continuation.”

Joe Sample recalls why he left the crusaders in 1983. “We had all been brutalized by the flip-flopping of the music industry. Until things got to a positive note again [within the industry] there would never be a reason for us to play together again.”

And he explains why he considered returning.

“I personally began to miss what I call the original roots of American music, such as the grooves of Marvin Gaye and the Staple Singers. In ’95, I found myself spending a lot of time in the region I was born [Southeast Texas/Louisiana]. I would turn on the radio during the weekends and the origins of American music, which inspired me to be a musician, were still alive and well, at least there anyway. I wanted to play things like that again, and starting having conversations with Stix. Wilton and I hadn’t talked that much, but eventually we also began to discuss things. Basically, we all knew that we really longed to create music again that we loved.”

Felder is patiently listening and agreeing with Sample’s remarks. While initially reluctant to speak, Felder finally says, “The Crusaders have been the only band that I’ve loved playing in. I realized as I got older that nobody else played like them. The way that we played together, and the music that we made can only be played when we’re together. Before I leave the scene, I’d love to be able to create and play together with [Stix and Joe]. So, I’m real happy to do this album.”

Notably, missing from the reunion is trombonist and larger-than-life personality Wayne Henderson, whose horn helped give the Crusaders front-line such a distinctive sound. Confusingly, under the old name the Jazz Crusaders, Henderson has been performing the group’s music with a band consisting of Felder, keyboardist Bobby Lyle and other players. (Henderson was the first core member to leave the band, in 1975, to pursue producing and a solo career.)

“It might have been great, but it wasn’t Crusaders’ music,” Felder says of the Henderson-led Jazz Crusaders. “The only part that had the Crusader sound was Wayne and I. But for me, the music suffered and it became something else. Also there wasn’t the freedom to do what you wanted on the bandstand. If you reached back and wanted to call up a classic from the past, the younger players had never heard it. So it wasn’t the same as the whole entire group that grew up together, understood one another and knew how to react with Wayne and I.”

Without the slightest hesitation, Sample says, “When Wayne left the band in ’75, I really felt that he didn’t want to participate in our concept. That’s why he left and he created his own. That’s what he’s doing with the Jazz Crusaders, [whose name] is owned by the partnership of Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson, Wilton and myself. We have always felt that it’s a group effort. I can call any group anything I want, but we know what the Crusaders are. I’ll play with Harold Land and Bobby Hutchinson, but I won’t go to them or anyone else with a Crusaders concept. We have a very distinctive concept of playing, and Wayne has chosen to do what he wants to do. That’s why he isn’t on [Rural Renewal].”

Even when they themselves were called the Jazz Crusaders, the band’s concept was an appealing blend of R&B, gospel and hard bop. In 1971, Jazz was dropped from the Crusaders’ moniker, and the band incorporated more pop and rock elements into its music.

“The ’70s were a remarkable period for the Crusaders,” Sample proudly acknowledges. “I think we learned what we respected about jazz, which was the individuality of the artist. In fact, if we had imitated anybody in the ’60s we would have never been signed to Pacific Jazz Records. In those days you had to have your own unique sound or style. Miles, Coltrane, [Paul] Desmond-all had their own sound. John Coltrane’s music was spiritual, and his music touched me that way. I didn’t care if he was utilizing principles of European musical science, with scales and melodic patterns. It was wonderful, but then the copycats came, and all the spirituality was gone.”

Felder says, “We were mostly rebels, and when everyone was going in one direction, we deliberately went the other way. You can’t tell us how to play. We have to do it, because we know what it’s going to feel like.”

Despite Sample and Felder’s lofty stance on being individuals, the truth is the Crusaders have felt commercial pressure from label executives, who sometimes asked them to record cool-jazz versions of then-current pop hits. Carole King’s “So Far Away,” from the Crusaders’ 1974 live album Scratch (MCA), actually worked out and became a classic for the group, but that particular instance was an anomaly; most other pop-jazz attempts merely failed.

“If there was no spirituality in the music, the Crusaders were the worst band on the face of the earth,” Sample asserts. “A record company would say, ‘Why don’t you play this or that song.’ So we would sit in rehearsal and we would start playing it. And we would turn around and look at each other and say, ‘Man, don’t you feel like a damn fool right now'” he laughs. “It was so ridiculous and had no meaning. So why were we going to do a version of something that had no spirituality or values that touched the origins of our musical souls? Why music is the way it is, is a mystery; it just happens, and we know when we feel that and get chills going down our backs. Also, we know [it’s bad when] we take rough tracks home from a session and we have to turn them off, because we can’t stand to listen to them.”

Ironically, the Crusaders are a strong influence on many of the currently hot contemporary and smooth jazz artists, many of whom also slavishly cover today’s hits in search of a radio hit. Sample says of being an influence, “It’s flattering, but at the same time I’m just sorry that we don’t have the variety today. It’s one thing to influence people, but why do record companies have to sign everyone that sounds the same? We had a style and bands [toward the end of the ’60s] started imitating the Crusaders. We never planned it, and how four guys out of high school could come up with that was a mystery.”

At the beginning of the ’60s, the Jazz Crusaders were a soulful hard-bop group, heavily influenced by Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and R&B. By the early 1970s, they became regarded more as a fusion ensemble, due to Sample’s electric piano and clavinet. However, by the mid- to late ’70s, they were labeled as a contemporary-jazz ensemble. Now in 2003 they have to come to grips with possibly being categorized as smooth jazz. When I mention this to Felder, he sparks up considerably.

“I got to come in on all of that,” Felder barks as Sample laughs uproarishly. “Those labels are what [others] said we were. But it’s been the same music. As you get older you play a certain way. And what’s amazing right now, is that if would you put us together and asked us to play anything that we’ve done over the years, it would still be able to have the same emotions that it had before. But people hear certain things and they put it in another category. We became a fusion band because they had to label us as something. They couldn’t call us a jazz band, because we didn’t fit the ‘East Coast thing.’ Also we had a guitarist [Larry Carlton] that didn’t sound like the first guitarist [Roy Gaines]. So depending on the players, you’re going to have something else. But the basic core was still Joe, Stix and Wayne and I upfront, and the feeling of the music was the same.”

Rural Renewal seems to pick up right where the Crusaders were when Henderson left: The music is old-school jazz-funk, with plenty of room for soloing, and two tracks feature the gospel dynamo Donnie McClurkin (who is assisted by the Sounds of Blackness choir on one song).

“I’ve always written differently for the Crusaders,” Sample says, “and for this CD I went for the roots. There’s a spiritual, rhythmic and soulful sense to it. And I left all the sophistication out because that was going to suck everything out of everyone.

“We hadn’t played together in 20 years, and for all the other guys [guitarists Ray Parker Jr., Dean Parks and Arthur Adams, bassist Freddie Washington, trombonist Steve Baxter and percussionist Lenny Castro], they all fell into a Crusaders mode. I reasoned that what was going to pull everyone in was a bass line. Freddie Washington stepped in on this record, and Wilton didn’t open his mouth one time.”

Felder explains, “Usually when another bass player plays, I’ll be telling him what to do. That’s how Joe got me playing bass in the first place, because I was always telling them what to do. But I had no problem with Freddie, because he understood the music and would play with the proper feeling.

“Steve Baxter is also from down South, and he listened to us and knew the Crusaders sound. He’s the only one that I’ve been able to play with to get the same sound. When Wayne first left the band, we tried trombonist Garnett Brown for one job and ended up dropping trombone and going with guitar. If you look at our records, Dean Parks has always been on them, and the reason is that he can give you any kind of sound that you want. All you have to do is give him directions and he’ll do it. When you have the right blend of musicians that know their roles, it works.”

Another added flavor to that Crusaders blend, and one probably put there for crossover considerations, is rock-pop guitar-icon Eric Clapton, who plays on two selections. Still, Felder says, “We weren’t thinking about radio, just about what we were feeling. I’ve always felt that if something was good, regardless of where people hear it, the either like it or don’t like it. So some way or another it will touch somebody or maybe not anyone. But it wasn’t done for radio purposes.”

“Why shouldn’t it be accessible?” Sample says. “Ellington had hits, and I admire him a lot more than many other artists. [Hits are] the only thing that’s going to make [jazz] live and be timeless. Now the danger is that the press, educators and critics are in control of it. They’re saying what is jazz and what isn’t. Every week they’re looking for something different, and other things, of wonderful value, they totally blow off. To me those people are robots and have no emotionalism within them.”

Felder somewhat defiantly adds, “I don’t listen to them, and I play what I feel at the moment. I’m concerned about the audience who’s listening. In my earlier days I learned a very vital lesson from Cannonball. He could play and is my favorite saxophonist, even over Bird. It wasn’t just a matter of him playing-all the musicians knew he could play. But he touched the audiences, playing the things that he loved and it was honest and sincere. Every note he played, no matter what style it was, he played it from the heart. That to me is what I expect out of myself and other musicians-I could care less about what the critics say.”

Sample, more reflective and somber now, says, “Pat Metheny and I were having a conversation backstage, about a year and a half ago at a festival in Europe. He said, ‘It’s all changed now; jazz was a folk music.’ And I said, ‘Pat, I thought I was the only who had thoughts like that.’ One of the major problems is this quest to make jazz ‘America’s art form.’ It is already; just leave it alone and let it be.”


Joe Sample

1960s-vintage Wurlitzer and 1973 Fender Rhodes electric pianos

Korg Triton synthesizer

Hamburg Steinway Model D grand piano

Wilton Felder

Yamaha saxophones: tenor, alto and soprano

Mouthpieces: Berg Larsen 105/0 on the tenor; hard rubber Beechler on the alto; Selmer E on the Soprano

Reeds: Rico Royal #3

Stix Hooper

Drums: Pearl, with fiberglass shells and brass-shell snare: 24″ x 14″ bass drum; tom-toms 12″ x 8″, 13″ x 9″, 14″ x 10″; floor toms 16″ x 16″, 18″ x 16″, 14″ x 6 1/2″; melodic toms 6″ x 5 1/2″, 8″ x 5 1/2″, 10″ x 6 1/2″, 12″ x 8″, 13″ x 9″, 14″ x 10″, 15″ x 12″, 16″ x 14″

Drumheads: Remo WeatherKing CS

Cymbals: Zildjian, various sizes

Drumsticks: Pro-Mark

Jazz Crusades

As the interview wound down, Wilton Felder and Joe Sample recalled a few special Crusaders moments.

Felder: “In the studio on The Southern Comfort album [MCA, 1974], the chemistry between Larry Carlton and I was unforgettable….In Europe with Randy Crawford; we played at the Grand Hall in Hamburg, Germany. She did a solo a cappella version of ‘Everything Must Change,’ and all the Germans who had been drinking were floored when she opened up her mouth.”

Sample: “We also played at the Royal Festival Hall in London and that was an unbelievable experience, with the band playing well and the audience was incredible. But I never forget when did our first concert in Oakland after not performing there for six years. It was 1974, and we decided to open with ‘Put It Where You Want it,’ which we knew was a hit. So I started off on the piano playing very, very softly. Some guy ran all the way from the back of the auditorium to the front of stage and yelled, ‘The Crusaders didn’t come here to bullshit tonight!’ Man, the whole place erupted! That was pretty wild.” Originally Published

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.