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Joe Sample, Iconic Jazz Pianist & Composer, Is Dead at 75

By , Editor | The Jazz Line

Joe Sample, the critically acclaimed pianist and composer that spent more than five decades creating awe-inspiring music that transcended genres and inspired countless musicians, died on Friday, September 12 in his hometown of Houston, TX. He was 75.

Joe Sample

Sample’s family confirmed the sad news with a post on his Facebook page, which read: “At 9:50pm (Houston,TX time), September 12, 2014, Joe Sample passed. His wife Yolanda and his son Nicklas would like to thank all of you, his fans and friends, for your prayers and support during this trying time. Please know that Joe was aware and very appreciative of all of your prayers, comments, letters/cards and well wishes.”

Update: It has now been confirmed that Sample died as a result of complications from lung cancer. We previously reported that Sample was hospitalized last year after a cyst went undetected on one of his lungs, causing serious breathing difficulties. This was the latest in a series of health struggles Sample suffered in his final years, including two heart attacks in 1994 and 2009. In his usual upbeat manner, he attributed these struggles to “the vagaries of life, and a little bit of old age.”

While these struggles forced him to cancel a number of shows recently, including a planned three-day residency at London’s Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club last month, the electricity that filled the room whenever he played made it so you could never guess his age.

Joseph Leslie Sample was born on February 1, 1939 in Houston, TX. He found himself enamored shortly after being introduced to the piano at just five years of age, and stuck with the instrument throughout childhood. He eventually went on to study music performance at Texas Southern University, where he teamed up with his old friends saxophonist Wilton Felder, drummer Stix Hooper, trombonist Wayne Henderson, and several other musicians to form The Jazz Crusaders (later, just The Crusaders).

The then-teenagers would travel across the Gulf states, playing dive bars and strip clubs trying to emulate music by the likes of John Coltrane. “There was nothing city-slick about what we did,” Sample told The Independent in 1995 about the group’s musical origins.

The group never graduated from TSU. Instead, they moved from Houston to Los Angeles in the late ’50s to pursue their musical aspirations as a hard-bop group, which was the dominant style of jazz in that era. The group quickly stood out from the crowd for their unique sound, which included Henderson and Felder playing choruses in unison.

This praise gave them the confidence to experiment much more with their music, until they eventually hit on a winning formula by incorporating elements of soul and funk into a unique fusion that effectively pioneered the styles and techniques we continue to hear in contemporary jazz, and other genres, to this day.

“We are the fathers of jazz-funk-fusion,” Henderson told the LA Times in 1995. “We took pop tunes… and did them melodically with a groove, so people could dance if they wanted.”

The Jazz Crusaders recorded their first album, Freedom Sound, in 1961; which served as the first of more than 40 albums the group released – 19 of which would go on to chart in the Billboard 200. They dropped the “jazz” from their name in 1971 order to align audience expectations with the increasingly experimental sounds and catchy grooves that saw them depart further from what is traditionally called ‘jazz.’ The group added an electric bassist and guitarist, and Sample started experimenting with electric keyboards – Including the Fender Rhodes. This ushered in a new era for the group, which continued until they broke up in 1987.

Sample’s experimental energy, electric virtuosity, and unique compositions made him a highly sought-after performer and composer, and laid the groundwork for him to work with the likes of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, George Benson, Marvin Gaye, Anita Baker, Joni Mitchell, and many others throughout the height of The Crusader’s success and beyond.

Sample was also a critically acclaimed solo performer in his own right, working with other musicians to record 21 solo albums in a career that spanned more than 50-years. He also holds writing, production, and performing credits on countless other releases. Has last solo release, Live, hit stores in 2012 and featured featured Randy Crawford (vocals), Steve Gadd (drums), and his son Nicklas (bass).

He was truly one of the most influential pianists of a generation, and stands as fixture of contemporary jazz.

Sample is survived by his wife Yolanda and his son Nicklas.

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