Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the August 23,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All

rights reserved.

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

Billboard’s

1999 "Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year" award. This

Saturday,

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

pianist

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

street

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

Triangle,"

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

music,"

Sample, now 61, explains.

"The Song Lives On" came out on Verve, now a division of

Universal

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

number

of `smooth jazz’ radio stations that refused to play the album,

because

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.

"They

needed a piano player," he recalls, "they called me. But even

before that, my older brother used to send me down to this dance

palace

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

eventually,

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

Blakey’s

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

purists

don’t like me, because instead of being a jazz musician, I’m an

artist,

I paint pictures. I paint musical portraits of life," he

continues,

"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

Life,"

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

Hooper,

and dozens of others, Sample recorded two albums with folk singer

Joni Mitchell, who has always had an appreciation for good jazz.

Sample’s

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

emotion

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

timeless."

That same emotion is what Sample puts in to all of his live

performances,

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,

arranger,

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

"Street

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

hearkens

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

Triangle."

"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 Jazz Festival, Mercer County Waterfront Park,

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

George

Duke are featured. $20 to $35. Ticketmaster. Saturday, August

26, 7 p.m. to midnight.


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