Joe Sample Interview 2004
A Word With Joe Sample
About Flying Solo
by S.H. Watkins, Sr.
JazzUSA: Soul shadows… after listening to it I enjoy it very much. It gives you a chance to showcase your talent. Why a solo album?
Joe: a Solo album is the most natural thing for a guy to do who’s been sitting at a piano since he was five years old, should do. It’s all been solo piano since the beginning. From going to the piano teacher and sitting there. It all began with Boogie Woogie at five years old. 1944. Having to do recitals all by myself and I would do the common works for young piano students. As you get older you start doing the works of Bach and sonata’s, so it’s always been solo. I grew up with an older brother, he was 15 years older than me and he played piano in an all black naval swing band in WWII. His idol was Teddy Wilson, so I heard countless hours and hours of listening to my older brother playing Teddy Wilson.
At some point in the mid 60’s it was Ben Webster who invited me to his hotel room, the day after he had jammed with the band, the crusaders. The Jazz Crusaders at the workshop in San Francisco. He insisted that I come to his hotel room where he had a reel to reel tape recordings of James P. Johnson. I had heard James P. Johnson recordings through my father and brother when I was a child. In the 50’s I became a disciple of be-bop like everyone else had. At 13-14 years old I also realized that my left had was surely going to die. It required whatever the technique was required to create a be-bop performance. And that simply meant get out of the way of the bass player and the drums.
JazzUSA: So it’s almost a natural thing for you to go this way.
Joe: Oh yeah, just to sit at the piano, to be able to feel like I’m a real man. I’m going to call myself a piano player and I can’t use both hands, is absurd to me.
JazzUSA: Do you think your target audience from the record company’s point of view, is going to appreciate this album. Bearing in mind that a lot of your audience is use to you in the ensemble setting.
Joe: The ensemble setting has always been a demonstration of my; love of music. I know that the audiences or fans don’t really understand or quite possible know what is the motivation of any musician. In my case I remember practicing, keeping my left hand in great condition. All the way up to the age of 30, where in 1968, as you know that was that major change from the Jazz Crusaders to the Crusaders. From the Acoustic piano to the electric piano. Also the change of the music, where I really decided, and I had numerous reasons. And this is what I will always say that I had numerous reasons to stop holding back the true territory musician that I am. I am made up of Jazz, Blues, Gospel and every damn thing else. So I’m not going to hold that back to satisfy, the status quo of the jazz world.
JazzUSA: You play music for Joe Sample and not for them.
Joe: I was born to do what God put in me and I can’t stop it from coming out.
JazzUSA: I’m glad you don’t . Joe you mentioned be-bop Joe? How did you feel about playing as a be-bop group. When you were in Symphony Hall in Chicago, where they did all the music you made famous in the electronic situation. But you got be-bopped up?
Joe: Be-bop was the most fascinating thing that I began to hear in the late 40’s. Again it was because of my oldest brother. We didn’t have real jazz clubs in Houston that would be a jam session on any particular jam Sunday afternoon. I remember that even the jam sessions would be shut down, because they would eventually become and interracial event. By Texas law that was against the law, the police would come in after one month and cut these rich jam sessions down. Another club would have it and wherever you had jazz musicians playing, of course everybody would find out about it, and it across racial lines. It was a natural instinctive thing not to give a damn about anybody’s race. All you cared about was can he play? The music was the drawing card eventually because of Texas law it was shut down. So in order to sustain a Jazz Club, you could not have Jim Crow laws in effect. I’m saying all that to say that Houston never really had a jazz club. That was the one unfortunate thing by being born where I was born. I didn’t have it that there were jazz clubs in most of the eastern cities. And even a number of Western cities where I was growing up. I had to seek jazz and I had to find it. What was natural was the church the Baptist, the African Methodist, the Sanctified the Holy Rollers….(laughter). Every blues bar on every corner, for every church there were two blues bar. There were blind men on every major intersection in the Black neighborhoods, playing Blues with a tin cup hanging off the neck of the guitar.
JazzUSA: And not a Jazz club in sight.
Joe: Not a Jazz club in sight.
JazzUSA: So it’s interesting that you ended up at Symphony Hall play be-bop.
Joe: That was also one of the loves of my life. One thing that people really do not understand. Especially Linn Suther could never understand this or, the critics of the elite publications. They never understood that being a piano player was one of the worst nightmares that you could engage yourself in on the face of the earth. For every decent piano I play throughout the 50’s and 60’s, for every decent piano I played 30 dogs. The dogs were so fierce and plentiful that finally in Cleveland, I told the Jazz Crusaders. We were in a Jazz club in Cleveland, I told the band that is it brothers. I cannot waste my life coming around week after week after week and sitting on pianos that were absolutely unplayable. Now this particular piano is suppose to be 88 notes. It had 88 keys on it and only 3 had a sound. There were no strings in this (explicative) piano. I quit, this is not furthering my life.
Right then and there, I made up my mind, I went to the Wurlitzer piano. I couldn’t really play the Fender Rhodes, because of the quality of the steel tones generated. The tuning time as they call did not have the strength to stand up to my strength. So I consequently break all the tuning times. I found out that Joe Zawinul was doing the same thing. He and I both got called out to Fullerton California to the Fender Rhodes Company. George Rhodes introduced me and Joe Sabine, not at the same day, but probably in the same week. To the new upgraded Fender Rhodes and that’s when I decide to go to the Rhodes. I found it could stand up from the strength of a piano player.
JazzUSA: A different direction Joe for you (kind of), you’ve always been a vocal critic of smooth jazz. Now that you are play straight ahead jazz have you been confronted by the jazz police.
Joe: There was a critic in the Washington Post recently, perhaps two weeks ago. Who reviewed my album and made an announcement that I would be playing with the trio in Arlington, Virginia at the Bridgemere. I thought that his review, he laid it out that he had to defend the position that he had always taken against me in the past. He was very complimentary, of the solo shadows work. His opening line was that I had spent the majority of my life making music that is easy to play and easy to listen to. This guy has no idea that my music has kicked most musicians asses. It is very difficult to play and the reason that they think it’s easy to play, because I simply make it sound so simple.
JazzUSA: Exactly, it is easy to listen to though!
Joe: It is that, I tell everybody today, I came up with this phrase a few years ago. I cannot tolerate demonstrations of intellect. This is when I made the decision that I had to get away from being the jazz piano player in the existing jazz clubs in 68. Basically because there were no pianos to play. And I saw that jazz was headed in a direction that was alien. Too many of the reasons that made me become a jazz musician in the first place. When I listened to jazz it gave me chills throughout my body. Duke Ellington, Basie, Lenny Kurstano(?), I listened to hours and hours. I was emotionally and spiritually touch by all the great artists of jazz. It happened with Miles, it happened with Coltrane, Coltrane was a very very spiritual man. Then all of the sudden by the ends of the 80’s, I personally saw that jazz was becoming demonstrations of intellect. And that word intellect I read recently was described as arrogance. This is what I have felt from a number of the musicians that have the sense of trying to prove that they are superior. I have felt as if I have been tested, they have created test to see how musical I was. I mean some name guys, some very prominent musicians today. I just think hey the only reason that you and I are here in this situation together, is because I thought we were suppose to be making music. I didn’t come here to pass a music test.
JazzUSA: They’ve lost touch?
Joe: They have lost as to what jazz music is suppose to be. Well we’ve lost touch with music everywhere. Every phase of it and you know what this album was? It takes me back to Soul Shadows I witnessed in Country, R&B, Jazz and I’ve witness in Gospel today, I have witnessed everything. WE have distanced ourselves so far from the roots of the origins of our music that I find it deploring.
JazzUSA: There’s not a lot of good music, there’s a lot of music being redone.
Joe: It’s formula, formula formula.
JazzUSA: No originality
Joe: None at all. The thing about smooth jazz is that they have a formula for them that works. And what they have done is that they created a formula which actually stifles the sense of creating new music. The most wonderful period that I remember in music was the 1970’s. Whenever you listened to any Crusaders album you never new what it was going to be like. If you ever listen to any Miles any Marvin Gaye. Motown was pouring out things all of the artists from Country to everywhere. We constantly heard music that we’d never heard before.
JazzUSA: Now it’s just variations on them.
Joe: It’s variations of the formula.
JazzUSA: I notice you have the entertainer on here, it’s got a Joplin tune. Are you familiar with Reginald Robinson. He’s a young pianist out of Chicago he just won a McArthur grant. And he was inspired by Joplin’s music.
Joe: I heard about this guy recently.
JazzUSA: I just mentioned him because he’s a pianist from Chicago and I’m from Chicago.
Joe: And his name is Reginald Robinson, RR, I’m going to have to write that down. He has a recording out?
JazzUSA: Yes he has a few of them out. I looked him up and made sure that I was right before I brought it to you. A couple more things and this is just my own. I remember this album you did a while back with Lalah Hathaway. In fact I still have the interview sitting on the wall that you did with Mark Ruffin. Are you looking to do anything like that in the future.
Joe: ON the books I. well right now I am currently in the process of looking for and writing and will be very soon writing with Lalah. Hopefully the next project that I do, do will be with Lalah and the trio. I’m very excited about getting in to the trio. For the first time ever I have a drummer, who really paves a way. So that as we are playing I have this room and this space to take a turn at any point that I want to. I can take it anywhere that I want to without anybody leading me.
JazzUSA: Who is it?
Joe: His name is Adam Nussbaum, he has made it possible for me to feel totally free to generate any kind of feeling that I may feel at any particular moment. I guess that that has been the most difficult thing, the intricacies of rhythm, are tremendous. This is where all of the Jazz critics have faulted me and they will say that the rhythm isn’t really important. That is where I disagree with them tremendously, cause that is what makes it, one of the main ingredients that make it jazz. Well Adam can feel every sensitivity concerning rhythm that I love to get into. And do you know why he does that.
Joe: Because he is very passionate to listening to all recorded music, going all the way back to the beginning. He sends me things, he gives me things, he makes CDs for me where he as found some obscure Basie, obscure this and obscure that. We marvel at the feeling that these performers are generating. It is the feeling, the tingling excitement. Adam now makes it possible because he is sensitive to all of the sensitivity of rhythm.
JazzUSA: Well that’s good then we can expect some good Joe Sample coming out in the future.
Joe: And hopefully with Lalah.
JazzUSA: Yeah, hopefully with Lalah. Just one more question Joe, I have to ask this one. Are there any future Crusader plans?
Joe: Yes I would certainly like to get into the studio. I know that Stewart Lavine who has worked with us as a producer. And Pat Rings who has TRA records and we participate in the ownership of the master. He’s anxious to do it. I know all the guys now, Wilton and Ray Parker and I’m very anxious to do it. Ray Parker and presented a very new sense of rhythm and blues to the Crusaders. An authentic sense of R&B which I just, sometimes he’s into his unique sensitivities as an R&B player, I take my hands off of the keyboard and simply listen to it. We are all looking forward to doing this again.
JazzUSA: Joe it’s been good talking to you. You are one of the masters, we’re looking forward to the new album. Have a good day.
Joe: Thank you very much. Bye-Bye.