Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Jazz Crusaders - band/ensemble
In 1961, four fellows from Houston transplanted themselves to Los Angeles and added more distinctly bluesy elements to the soul jazz style with an ear-grabbing album called “The Freedom Sound,” on the Pacific Jazz label. Its four co-leaders were trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxophonist (and occasional bassist) Wilton Felder, pianist Joe Sample, and drummer Nesbert Stix Hooper.
They first joined together in Houston in the fifties with the formation of The Swingsters, the group’s embracing of many different musical styles starts where it normally does, at the beginning. “Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios,” says Felder, “our music was live. The Texas streets were rich with the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. We grew up on all the deep country sounds. At the same time, we had ears for modern jazz�Miles and Monk�and never saw a contradiction between the old and new.” It’s no surprise, then, that once in senior high, The Swingsters became The Modern Jazz Sextet, a group that continued through their college years at Texas Southern University. Before graduation, though, the call of the road was irresistible, and they were off to L.A.
Two years later, in 1960, the group was signed to Pacific Jazz Records and re-christened The Jazz Crusaders. Their trombone/sax frontline sound was unique, their bop chops impeccable. In a series of superlative albums, The Jazz Crusaders built a national reputation, surviving a decade in which the popularity of jazz was in extreme decline. On one hand, the British Invasion and Motown dominated the youth market; on the other, the jazz avant-garde alienated scores of fans.
The Jazz Crusaders sound caught on big time, and their subsequent Pacific Jazz albums rewarded them with a good deal of exposure. The band performed regularly and got plenty of airplay. But as times changed, so did the Jazz Crusaders. In the late Sixties, they placed popular songs in their repertoire, and firm backbeats began to bolster many a selection. By 1971, they decided that the word jazz kept them from attracting a wider listener base, and so they emerged anew with “The Crusaders, Vol. 1,” (Chisa), an album that openly infused jazz with pop, soul, and R&B elements.
If the Jazz Crusaders had achieved some degree of popularity, it was nothing like the crossover success that greeted the Crusaders. Such albums as “Scratch,” “Southern Comfort,” “Chain Reaction,” “Those Southern Knights,” “Free as the Wind,” “Images, Street Life,” and “Royal Jam” (recorded variously for the Chisa, ABC Blue Thumb, and MCA labels) sold well and brought in a deluge of new fans. Street Life’s title track, with Randy Crawford on vocals, provided the Crusaders with a major crossover hit in 1979.
The Crusaders’ popularity started to fade in the early Eighties, prompted by Henderson’s departure. Hooper then left as well, and by the early ‘90’s, Sample and Felder had disbanded the group.
A few years later, Henderson and Felder began performing together, first as the New Crusaders and then, as the Jazz Crusaders. Henderson was able to hold on to the name Jazz Crusaders and is still touring under that name.
They reunited after a 20-year absence, and in 2003, Verve Records released “Rural Renewal.” This record featured the heart of the original Crusaders lineup;Joe Sample on keys, Wilton Felder on saxophone, and Stix Hooper on drums, along with trombonist Steve Baxter, in Wayne Henderson’s former spot. Also on board was Stewart Levine, the producer credited for The Crusaders’ major successes in the 1960s and 1970s.
Henderson and Felder both went on to have solid solo careers both as performers and producers. Hooper likewise remained active though not as visible as the others.Joe Sample of course has gone on to become a first call pianist and has produced a score of fine albums as leader as well.
Even during the days of commercial success, the Crusaders had at their core a note of integrity. Though many will judge them for their latter more popular period, they are recognized by jazz aficionados for their work in the early ‘60’s as the Jazz Crusaders.
The young musicians performed their own mix of the sounds that came out of their culture and their experiences. It was only when they were signed to Pacific Jazz that they adopted the name that would remain unchanged for a decade.
From their first recordings, The Jazz Crusaders proved they sounded like no one else. They took as their foundation what Sample called the three pillars of African American music: jazz, blues and gospel. In fact, part of what makes The Jazz Crusaders' music through the decade of the 1960s so appealing is that their background and musical influences seemed to put them on a course of musical discovery, seeking ways to apply the art of self expression and improvisation to their own compositions and to a wide repertoire from the jazz and pop worlds.