One More Musical Bridge

Joe Sample

I don’t like to start a post with words about the death of another musician. Nevertheless, as with any life experience inevitably death will come. We did lose a legendary and brilliant jazz artist September 14, 2014 in Joe Sample. As a key member of the Jazz Crusaders, Joe Sample along with the rest of the group placed a deep footprint upon the jazz community. I never knew any of the Crusaders to be particularly loquacious, as they all seemed to be humble artists who let their music do most of the talking. Joe Sample did his share of interviews though, always the gentleman, always giving a well-thought answer to the question asked. Usually after the death of any musical artist, I tend to think back to some of my discussions in the past about that particular musician. One thing mentioned in a previous conversation about Sample was that he could be considered a “bridge” between musical genres. Well, this might be true because Sample and the Crusaders were largely recognized as a jazz-fusion group. When you hear that term jazz-fusion, it usually means a mixture of jazz with pop, and/or R&B musical styles.

Sample was born in Houston, Texas on February 1, 1939 and began to play the piano at age five. In high school in the 1950s, Sample teamed up with two friends named saxophonist Wilton Felder and drummer “Stix” Hooper. While studying piano at Texas Southern University, Sample met and added trombonist Wayne Henderson and several other players to the Swingsters, which became the Modern Jazz Sextet and then the Jazz Crusaders.  In 1960, he and the Jazz Crusaders made the move from Houston to Los Angeles. 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. 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; 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 Los Angeles studio musician, appearing on recordings by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Minnie Riperton and Anita Baker. The electric keyboard was new in the sixties, and Sample became one of the instrument’s pioneers.

I must return to the definition of that word “bridge”. As I looked up the word in the dictionary, I found twelve different meanings. Normally only a few might apply so I looked at the first two.  1) A structure allowing passage across obstacle: a structure that is built above and across a river, road, or other obstacle to allow people or vehicles to cross it. 2) A link or means of approach: something that provides a link, connection, or means of coming together. Interestingly, there were only a couple of meanings that could be considered musical terms, but only one of them worked well. 3) A linking piece of music: a transitional or connecting section in a musical work.

These three definitions helped me understand the thought behind using the word “bridge” in description of Joe Sample. Of course, there were others that we can easily place the same description upon like Quincy Jones or Herbie Hancock. However, I really understood more after reading a bit more about Joe Sample and his musical inspiration. Sample’s 2004 Soul Shadows album paid tribute to a chief personal influence slightly lesser known to the listening public – James Reese Europe. Before returning to Harlem in 1919, Europe and his orchestra spread jazz throughout England and Europe, introducing audiences to a sound and style that would change history. “As a young musician I wondered, where did our music come from?” said Sample. “I’ve become a bit of a historian of jazz and all African American music, and discovered a biography of James Reese Europe. Reading that biography has given me a clearer understanding of why he has been so important not only to me, but to all of us.” Once I read what Sample said I realized that he was more than a musical bridge between the jazz of the 1950’s and the popular music of our day, he was also a bridge between music from the early 1900’s to the present.

I am sorry I never had the opportunity to meet Joe Sample. I did get a chance to meet Wilton Felder and knew one of “Stix” Hooper’s brothers quite well. Nonetheless, we live in a small world of musicians and there are only a few degrees of separation away from each other. In speaking with persons who were closer to the Crusaders and Sample, I found no one with negative words about the pianist. Yes, we did lose a jazz giant, but we lost so much more. We lost a true musical bridge between the past and present, and one more person who could testify to the uniting bond of music – regardless the genre.

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