Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the August 23,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
Jazz on Tour, From Montreux to Trenton
Take a listen to pianist and songwriter Joe Sample’s
latest outing on Verve Records, "The Song Lives On," with
vocalist Lalah Hathaway, and you can hear the blues and soul that
is the musical underpinning for all that he does. The record won
1999 "Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year" award. This
August 26, you can hear Sample live at the Trenton Jazz Festival.
Watching Sample lead his own group at Club Bene several summers ago,
I witnessed a soul-drenched show — not what you would expect of
an artist who has been folded into the "contemporary jazz"
and "smooth jazz" categories. But given the environment
Sample was raised in — Houston’s Fifth Ward in the 1950s —
his blues underpinnings are not so surprising.
"I grew up in an ocean of gospel and blues," Sample recalls
of his youth in Houston, "jazz was there also, but it wasn’t as
prominent as the blues and gospel music. I remember blind men on
corners with guitars around their necks."
The son of a chef who worked on the railroad between Houston and Los
Angeles and a housewife mother, also an accomplished cook, Sample
said he began playing in the blues clubs around Houston’s Third Ward
when he was in his teens. The area between Austin, New Orleans and
Kansas City, Missouri, sometimes referred to as "the Texas
is famous for all the great musicians who have come out of the region,
everyone from Janis Joplin (Port Arthur, Texas) to Steve Miller and
Boz Scaggs (Dallas) to Houston-raised blues guitarist, the late Johnny
"Clyde" Copeland, with whom Sample played in high school.
"I grew up in an area known as `the territory.’ And what Count
Basie did was take a mixture of jazz and blues and groove to New York
City, and suddenly, all the arrangers there started to write charts
for him, because they were fascinated with how his band made
Sample, now 61, explains.
"The Song Lives On" came out on Verve, now a division of
Music, in the spring of 1999. Sample’s soulful piano and keyboard
treatments can be heard throughout the album.
`Believe it or not, there were a
of `smooth jazz’ radio stations that refused to play the album,
they said it was `too urban,’ meaning ‘too black.’ It’s absolutely
ridiculous and absurd," he says, noting that jazz is fundamentally
an African-American music.
"It shows you they are a group of businessmen who have no idea
what they are talking about musically, especially as far as jazz is
concerned," he continues.
Sample, born February 1, 1939, began playing piano at five in his
native Houston and did his first solo piano recital at age seven.
An older piano playing brother played with an all-black Navy band,
and it was his older brother who introduced him to 78 rpm recordings
by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong.
Sample made his professional debut when drummer Stix Hooper had a
band that was playing a New Year’s Eve dance in 1955 in Houston.
needed a piano player," he recalls, "they called me. But even
before that, my older brother used to send me down to this dance
whenever he had a football game. I would cover for him until he showed
up," he recalls.
In high school, Sample played blues in the clubs in Houston’s tough
Third Ward with Johnny Copeland, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Guitar
Slim and others while leading his own band, called the Modern Jazz
Sextet, to play jazz. After high school, in 1958, he moved to Los
Angeles. First, he formed a band called the Hollywood Nighthawks and
later formed a ground-breaking band called the Jazz Crusaders. Signed
to the Pacific Jazz label in 1961, the band ushered in a whole new
style of West Coast jazz.
"With the Hollywood Nighthawks, we went up to Las Vegas
and that’s when I realized I was not an entertainer in the style of
Louis Jordan or Louie Prima or any of those guys. I was a musician
who loved jazz," Sample says.
To some extent, the Jazz Crusaders modeled themselves after Art
Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderly’s bands, "and somehow,
that Texas territorial sense was always there, lurking or bubbling
right below the surface."
"I just recorded for 10 days with [blues and rock guitarist] Eric
Clapton in Los Angeles," Sample says, "and he did a T-Bone
Walker song or an Ivory Joe Hunter song, something like `You Dealt
Me A Losing Hand.’ That song is so powerful, the meaning behind it,
it painted this unbelievable story about this person’s life. That
feeling touches me as deeply and intensely as anything Duke Ellington
ever wrote or Miles Davis ever played. That, to me, is what music
is, painting stories about life," he explains.
For that reason, he argues, "a lot of the jazz
don’t like me, because instead of being a jazz musician, I’m an
I paint pictures. I paint musical portraits of life," he
"and that’s what I believe my role is as an artist."
"I don’t think jazz should be a display of `macho-ism’ on your
instrument! You know, how many European scales can you play, and how
fast can you play ’em. The thing about jazz that used to turn me on
was how it made me feel. When I hear some of these players around
today, why do I have to think about what they’re doing?"
Although many people don’t know it, Sample wrote "Street
which became a Top 40 hit in 1979 for vocalist Randy Crawford. In
the 1970s, while part of the Los Angeles studio clique that included
guitarist Larry Carlton, saxophonist David Sanborn, drummer Stix
and dozens of others, Sample recorded two albums with folk singer
Joni Mitchell, who has always had an appreciation for good jazz.
piano stylings can be heard on Mitchell’s "Court and Spark"
and "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" albums. "I became a
studio musician in the 1960s because at that particular time I wanted
to learn why other people’s music feels the way it feels. It was also
very lucrative," Sample says.
As a youngster, although he was already a piano player, Sample was
in love with Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing and he thought about
switching to that instrument, but never did.
"I was fascinated with how Louis Armstrong made me feel, the
that he put into his solos back then," he recalls. "Now, when
I go back as a 61-year-old man and listen to his recordings from the
1920s and ’30s, that emotion is still there. It’s simply
That same emotion is what Sample puts in to all of his live
be they with his own band or with the all-star lineup that comes to
the Trenton Jazz Festival this week, a group that includes saxophonist
Sanborn, vocalists Al Jarreau and Roberta Flack, and bandleader,
and keyboardist George Duke, as well as a bevy of back-up vocalists.
"I strive to put that emotion into all of my live shows, to be
as emotional as Louis Armstrong," he says. Sample’s blues-based
playing is all over tunes like "For All We Know" and
Life" on his current album, "The Song Lives On."
Asked what the audience could expect from the all-star lineup, called
"Montreux Jazz Festival on Tour," for the famous gathering
held every spring in Montreux, Switzerland, Sample says the show
back to classic rhythm and blues revues of the 1950s and ’60s.
"It is a small capsule of what goes on over a three-week period
at Montreux Jazz Festival," he explains, "and it is part of
a concept that festival founder Claude Nobbs started 33 years ago.
He always asks different performers to collaborate with one another.
So this past spring, I found myself on stage in a jam session with
B.B. King, David Sanborn and Gatemouth Brown," he says.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a singer, violinist, guitarist
and songwriter who is now 78, is also from "the Texas
"Back when I was 14, Gatemouth Brown was our idol. We realized
if we could learn a few of his tunes, we could earn some money playing
at live dances," Sample says.
Montreux Jazz Festival on Tour, Sample says, "is a tremendous
interplay between everyone on stage that you will never see except
at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I ran into the skycaps at the airport
in Cleveland after a show the other night, and they told me this was
the most incredible show they had ever seen. The variety of it is
something you’ll be shocked with: we touch on blues, soul, traditional
jazz, Latin jazz — even funk music!"
— Richard J. Skelly
Trenton, 856-338-9000. Top jazz stars of the Montreux Festival Tour
headline this year’s festival. Pianist Joe Sample, singers Roberta
Flack and Al Jarreau, saxophonist David Sanborn, and band leader
Duke are featured. $20 to $35. Ticketmaster. Saturday, August
26, 7 p.m. to midnight.
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