Speaking With the Crusaders
Insights Into Supergroup
by Mark Ruffin
The Crusaders; Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper have released their first album together in over 20 years Rural Renewal features the trio with guests Donnie McClurkin, the Sounds of Blackness, rock guitarist Eric Clapton and others.
Twelve years ago, Sample and Felder did release Healing The Wounds under the name, the Crusaders. But that brilliant mix of jazz and funk was really the work of the duo with master bassist/producer Marcus Miller. Original members, Hooper and trombonist Wayne Henderson were no where to be seen
“We never ever really had a bass player and when Stix left the band, I sank,” Sample remembered. “From then on we had a problem with drummers.”
Sample is a noted critic of what he perceives as stagnation in certain circles in contemporary jazz. He’s been particularly tough in the press on racism in smooth jazz and blandness in instrumental music.
“Listen to smooth jazz and the drummers are all playing like zombies,” Sample started, picking his words carefully. “The guys are playing back beat, with no sense of swing, or worse, there’s no drummer at all. I can’t believe the acceptance of that in smooth jazz.
“The back beat is the most useless tool in music,” the pianist continued, “It stops you from swinging.
“Every single drummer who played with us didn’t understand that when we were funky, we were feeling jazz the same time. Our funk wasn’t a hammer you over the head funk. It was a delicate funk.
“Ninety percent or more of the Crusaders music was recorded with the total absence of back beat. You’d never hear Stix Hooper play back beat.” Both Felder and Sample agree that the young people mixing hip-hop with jazz continues to be much more interesting than most smooth jazz.
“When hip-hoppers use drum machines, they put them in swing mode when they’re punching in grooves,” Sample explained.
“Younger people will understand the feel on the new record,” Felder quipped, ” and will be glad they have some new stuff to sample.”
From their very first album in 1960, the Crusaders were ingrained into the psyche of the contemporary jazz audience in America.
Throughout the decade, along with Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, and Ramsey Lewis, they were the main instigators of fusing classic 50’s post-bebop jazz with popular pop rhythms of the 60’s.
It was a unique balance that not every musician can handle, especially bass players.
The group began in Houston where the original four childhood friends, Sample, Felder, Henderson and Hooper, along with flute player Hubert Laws, formed a band called the Swingsters in the mid-50’s.
In college together at Texas Southern, the five, plus a bassist became the Modern Jazz Sextet. Then Laws, the older brother of Ronnie, Debra and Eloise, went east to New York, and became the first member of his very talented to family to gain fame in the early 60’s.
The rest went west, found another bassist, got signed to Pacific Jazz Records and changed their name to the Jazz Crusaders. They scored a hit, The Young Rabbits, on their very first album in 1960.
They had a prolific recording and touring career early, but still couldn’t find consistency in the bass chair. Among the most famous former Jazz Crusaders bassists are Buster Williams, Andy Simpkins and Herbie Lewis.
“I was always telling the bass player what to do,” said Felder, “and finally, one day Joe said, why don’t you just play the part.”
That solution, with Felder overdubbing his sax parts, re-energized the band. Then, after a temporary break up in the late-60’s, they regrouped as just the Crusaders. They dropped “Jazz” from their name and added a very young White guitarist named Larry Carlton, who is now famous as a member of Fourplay.
With Felder, now in the rhythm section on bass, he created a strong wall of sound with Sample that still allowed room for the sax solos to be added later. In the mid 70’s, the two of them became so musically intimate that they became the top-called rhythm duo in L.A. and appear on some of the most important records of our time, including records by Donald Byrd, Minnie Riperton, Steely Dan, Michael Franks, Joni Mitchell and many others.
“Joe and I and go play with somebody else and not disturb the essence of their music,” Felder explained. “But people couldn’t come and our band and play our music.”
“Right,” Sample jumped in. “They don’t allow us to be ourselves.”
However, the group did have to succumb to the reality that Felder couldn’t pull his sax/bass trick off live, and they eventually went back to hiring a bass player. On Rural Renewal they use L.A. studio veteran, Freddie Washington.
“One of the problems we had with bass players is that eventually, they want to do their own thing, not what we, the Crusaders want them to do,” Sample said.
It was during this period, in the 70’s, while Felder and Sample were in the studios with so many artists, that trombonist Henderson started his own company, At-Home Productions. Right after the Crusaders scored one of the biggest albums of their career, Those Southern Knights, Henderson talked his former flute player’s younger brother into leaving the band, Earth, Wind & Fire.
The results produced Ronnie Laws’ biggest hit single, Always There. Until Norah Jones exploded this year, Laws’ 1974 album, Pressure Sensitive, was the largest selling debut release by any solo artist in the long history of Blue Note Records.
Henderson, who now periodically fronts a band called the New Jazz Crusaders, was feeling his oats back then, and he left the band. While Hooper was a necessity to pull off the reunion of the Crusaders, Sample stops way short of any pronouncement that Henderson will be joining Felder to recreate that true, fabled Jazz Crusaders horn section sound.
“That won’t happen,” Sample said emphatically. “Wayne has always to demonstrated wanted to be in control or the boss of his own world. Wayne is not a team player
“But, I think we’re really going to keep this going this time,” he concludes. “When we went into the studio, we didn’t really plan on keeping it going. Then after we started, we all felt good and that we shouldn’t allow this to die again or even table it.