An artist who has flourished in both the artistic world of jazz and in the popular genres of funk and R&B, pianist Joe Sample has rejected artificial genre divisions. "I detest the separation that has gone on," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "[African-American musical styles] all came out of our spirituality, out of the church. When people say 'Are you a jazz musician?,' I say, 'No, I'm a jazz-gospel-and-blues musician." Whatever label was placed on his music, Sample had a down-to-earth style that both attracted wide audiences and commanded the respect of listeners focused on his musicianship.
Born on February 1, 1939, in Houston, Texas, Joe Sample grew up in a fertile musical crescent of the United States. "There was a migration from Louisiana into southeastern Texas during the 1920s because of flooding," he explained to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "So they moved over to the higher ground, and I grew up in a Creole neighborhood hearing zydeco and Louis Armstrong." He started playing the piano at age five, and he incorporated a range of local traditions into his music: jazz, gospel, blues, and even Latin and classical forms.
Escaped Realities of Segregation through Music
Sample explained a deeper motivation for his mastery of the piano in a statement reproduced on the Web site of agent Richard De La Font. "I grew up in a time and place where segregation was an acceptable way of life, and for me the piano was the only place I could run for an act of healing," he stated. "I still feel that expressing myself this way is my great sanctuary. I would like my legacy to be not only that I reflected the times in which I lived, but also that my music had the power to help heal people's pain the way it has healed mine."
In high school in the 1950s, Sample teamed up with two friends, saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper, to form a group called the Swingsters. While studying piano at Texas Southern University, Sample met and added trombonist Wayne Henderson and several other players to the Swingsters. The Swingsters changed their name first to the Modern Jazz Sextet and then to the Jazz Crusaders, in emulation of one of the leading progressive jazz bands of the day, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Sample never took a degree from the university; instead in 1960, he and the Jazz Crusaders made the move from Houston to Los Angeles.
The group quickly found opportunities on the West Coast, making its first recording, Freedom Sounds, in 1961 and releasing up to four albums a year over much of the 1960s. The Jazz Crusaders played at first in the dominant hard bop style of the day, standing out by virtue of their unusual front-line combination of saxophone (played by Wilton Felder) and Henderson's trombone. Another distinctive quality was the funky, rhythmically appealing acoustic piano playing of Sample, who helped steer the group's sound into a fusion between jazz and soul in the late 1960s. The Jazz Crusaders became a strong concert draw during those years.
Worked as Session Musician
While Sample and his band mates continued to work together, he and the other band members pursued individual work as well. In 1969 Sample made his first recording under his own name; the little-known Fancy Dance featured the pianist as part of a jazz trio. In the 1970s, as the Jazz Crusaders became simply the Crusaders and branched out into popular sounds, Sample became known as a reliable L.A.-studio musician, turning up on recordings by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, and vocal divas Minnie Riperton and Anita Baker. The electric keyboard was fairly new at the time, and Sample became one of the instrument's pioneers. He switched to electric keyboard for his recordings with the Crusaders themselves, and the group hit a commercial high-water mark with the hit single "Street Life" and the album of the same name in 1979.
After a few more small-group releases, Sample made his true solo debut on the MCA label in 1978 with Rainbow Seeker. It was the first of nearly 20 solo albums he recorded, most of them falling under the umbrella of what would come to be known as contemporary jazz or smooth jazz—music with well-rounded edges and strong urban contemporary influences that featured jazz solos and, often, a vocal component. Sample's compositions became favorites of jazz-pop vocalists like Al Jarreau and Randy Crawford, and he toured with Lalah Hathaway, daughter of R&B legend Donny Hathaway.
Suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
The 1980s were a frustrating time for Sample, both personally and creatively. His marriage of over 20 years dissolved, and he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. The Crusaders, after losing several key members, broke up after recording the Life in the Modern World album for the GRP label in 1987. The group's once-vital fusion of jazz and funk had fallen victim to music-industry pressures. "The most dangerous thing is to be convinced that you have to follow the rules of formula," Sample told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "and I realize that at certain times in my career (with the Crusaders) I've had to deal with formula or face consequences." Despite the disbanding of the Crusaders, the members would join each other to record periodically over the years; Felder, Hooper, and Sample recorded their first album, called Rural Renewal, as the reunited Crusaders group in 2003 and a live concert in Japan in 2004.
Sample, in fact, emerged as a strong critic of the recording industry in his later years. "We have totally departed from the origins and roots of our music, and that has happened because of businessmen," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "The reason music is made today is to make multimillion-selling albums. There's less and less music made for just the love of music.... The moguls will sugarcoat everything. It's time to speak out." Sample's musical philosophy had an idealistic tinge. Speaking to Essence about his 1991 Ashes to Ashes release, he said that the album "deals with the disintegration of both Black communities and America at large. What I am witnessing now is a total lack of love and self-respect. So I meant this album to be an inspirational factor in helping the Black community heal itself."
The pianist made a powerful spokesman for these ideas, for by the 1990s and 2000s jazz audiences had begun to refer to him as a legend. "I'm hearing that more and more," Sample told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's flattering, but I think, gee, I had better play and create in a very special manner." His recordings, for the Warner Brothers, Universal, and Verve, continued to sell well; Sample This was produced in 1997 by jazz fusion giant George Duke, and the All Music Guide hailed the 2002 album The Pecan Tree for its "impressive musical style based upon his early appreciation for jazz, gospel, soul, bebop, blues, Latin, and classical music." Sample's live concerts, often in a trio format featuring percussionist Lenny Castro, could tap rhythmically into the Latin layer of his musical upbringing. His 2004 album Soul Shadows paid tribute to jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, and pre-jazz bandleader James Reese Europe.
At a Glance...
Born on February 1, 1939, in Houston, TX; married (divorced); children: Nicklas. Education: Attended Texas Southern University.
Career: Musician, 1950s–; Swingsters musical group (renamed Modern Jazz Sextet, Jazz Crusaders (early 1960s), then Crusaders (early 1970s)), co-founder and member, 1960s-1980s.
(With Jazz Crusaders) Freedom Sounds, Pacific Jazz, 1961.
Fancy Dance, Gazell, 1969.
Try Us, Sonet, 1969.
The Three, Inner City, 1975.
Swing Street Café, MCA, 1978.
Rainbow Seeker, MCA, 1978.
Carmel, Blue Thumb, 1979.
(With the Crusaders) Street Life, MCA, 1979.
Voices in the Rain, MCA, 1980.
The Hunter, MCA, 1982.
(With the Crusaders) Life in the Modern World, GRP, 1987.
Roles, MCA, 1987.
Sermonized, Warner Brothers, 1984.
Oasis, MCA, 1989.
Spellbound, Warner Brothers, 1989.
Ashes to Ashes, Warner Brothers, 1991.
Invitation, Warner Brothers, 1993.
Did You Feel That? Warner Brothers, 1994.
Old Places, Old Faces, Warner Brothers, 1995.
Sample This, Warner Brothers, 1997.
The Song Lives On, GRP, 1999.
The Pecan Tree, Universal, 2002.
(With the Crusaders) Rural Renewal, Verve, 2003.
Soul Shadows, Verve, 2004.
(With the Crusaders) The Crusaders: Live in Japan, Verve, 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times, April 5, 1992, p. Show-2.
Essence, May 1991, p. 50.
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 23, 2001, p. 19; October 10, 2004, p. F4.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 9, 1996, p. D3.
"The Jazz Crusaders," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 10, 2005).
"Joe Sample," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 10, 2005).
"Joe Sample," Richard De La Font Agency, Inc., www.delafont.com/music_acts/Joe-Sample.htm (March 10, 2005).
"Joe Sample," Verve, www.vervemusicgroup.com/artist.aspx?ob=art&src=rslt&aid=2691 (March 29, 2005).
—Jim M. Manheim