Joe Sample, a legendary pianist who transitioned from bebop to soulful jazz with the Crusaders died Friday, according to a Facebook post by his wife and son. He was 75.
For more than four decades, pianist and composer Joe Sample has been an integral, innovative and bestselling part of jazz history. With Soul Shadows, the first all solo piano recording of Sample’s illustrious career, he pays homage to the great American songwriters of the 20th century whose masterful works inspired his own development as one of the most diverse and popular jazz performers of the last half century.
A founding member of the influential jazz funk combo The Crusaders (originally the Jazz Crusaders) and a pioneer of contemporary jazz piano, Sample reaches back to the primary sources of jazz and soul music to create his personal interpretations of classics by such esteemed composers as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, the Gershwins, Al Jolson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and others. While exploring these rich expressions of Americana, Sample acknowledges his own key role in carrying on these powerful legacies by including distinct reworkings of two of his own classics, “Soul Shadows” (which originally appeared on The Crusaders’ Midnight Triangle in 1976) and “Spellbound.”
Soul Shadows’ multi-faceted 12 track set list includes such Great American Songbook chestnuts as Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That’ Ain’t Good,” Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” & “I Got Rhythm,” Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” & “Jitterbug Waltz,” Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” and Jolson’s “Avalon.” But for Sample, the collection is more than simply living and re-interpreting musical history-it’s a true window into the heart and roots of the man and an insight into the role of the piano player in 20th Century American music. His approach to the songs and the genre perfectly reflect Sample’s belief that “if you played the piano in a stride or ragtime or a boogie-woogie manner, you wouldn’t need a bass player, you didn’t need a drummer. That’s how I started playing in the first place. I’ve been a solo pianist since I was six years old playing in my mama’s living room for her after-church teas.”
Conceptually, the defining track on Soul Shadows is the Walter Donaldson-Sam Lewis-Joe Young composition “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” which opens the set. For Sample, the album is something of a long overdue tribute to a chief personal influence slightly lesser known to the listening public-James Reese Europe, the first bona fide jazz big band leader whose jazz orchestra entered Paris in 1918 as part of the famous Fighting 369th unit. 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. Sample’s father fought in World War I and told his son stories about Europe and hearing the song, which was a big hit during that time.
“As a young musician I wondered, where did our music come from?” says Sample. “I’ve become a bit of a historian of jazz and all African American music, and recently 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.”
Learning to play piano at age five, the Houston native’s formative years found him firmly rooted in many different musical traditions, including gospel, soul, bebop, blues, Latin, and classical music. One of the many jazzmen who started out playing hard bop but went electric during the fusion era, (soon after attending Texas Southern University for three years,) Sample founded the Jazz Crusaders along with trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxman Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper. Relocating to and launching their storied career in Los Angeles, The Crusaders patterned themselves after Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, only without a trumpet and becoming renowned for their unique tenor/trombone front line.
Sample focused on the acoustic piano during the Crusaders’ early years (late 50s-early 60s), but began to place greater emphasis on electric keyboards when the band turned to jazz/funk in the early 70s and dropped the “Jazz” from its name. After garnering numerous gold and platinum albums over the course of nearly three decades, The Crusaders’ last official recording was Life in the Modern World in 1987. Sample and Felder released the dual album Healing the Wounds on GRP in the early 90s, and in 2003 rejoined Hooper for a more full-scale reunion that produced the Southern styled hit jazz fusion recording Rural Renewal-billed as the first new album by The Crusaders in over 20 years-and a popular subsequent tour.
While actively touring as a member of the Crusaders, Sample simultaneously launched a successful solo career. His bestselling recordings include Rainbow Seeker, Carmel, Voices in the Rain, Spellbound, Ashes to Ashes, Invitation (a return to his bebop roots), Did You Feel That?, Old Places, Old Faces and the George Duke produced Sample This. GRP also released The Joe Sample Collection and the three CD Crusaders Collection as testament to Sample’s enduring legacy. The pianist’s most recent recordings are 1999’s The Song Lives On (featuring duets with singer Lalah Hathaway) and 2002’s The Pecan Tree, a colorful tribute to his hometown of Houston, where he relocated in 1994.
In addition to his own recording, Sample has toured and performed with numerous musical greats in all genres, including Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, BB King, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Randy Crawford (who sang on the 1979 Crusaders smash “Street Life”), Anita Baker, Andrae Crouch and many others.
By returning to the roots of his own musical influence, Sample’s Soul Shadows gives us a unique reflection and chronicle of traditional American music at its best.
Sample is survived by his wife Yolanda and his son Niklas.
*Biography taken from Verve.