Jazz Crusaders, Stix Hooper, Wilton Felder, Wayne Henderson and Joe Sample

When search for Black history to celebrate, we Houstonians don’t have to look far, especially if the topic is the arts. The number of actors and actresses, dancers, and visual artists from the greater Houston area could fill a book. Even if you simply focus on music, Houston has history-makers in every genre.

Case in point, one of the most iconic groups in the history of improvisational jazz hails from right here in Houston—the Jazz Crusaders. Joe Sample, Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder, each musical legends in their own right, were the members of the legendary group.

Hubert Laws

The group, which also included Hubert Laws in the original lineup and Stix Hooper, left Houston in 1958 bound for fame and fortune in Los Angeles. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that the group recorded its first album, “Freedom Songs,” in commemoration of the then budding Civil Rights Movement. The Crusaders enjoyed a long run of success well into the 80s before personal conflicts within the band led to their parting of ways.

“Wilton and Joe are without a doubt two of the most creative and soulful people I’ve ever played with; we’ve been playing music together since we were pre-teens,” said Henderson, the group’s trombonist. “And since we’re getting up in age I wanted the opportunity to once again play with those cats.”

However, one member was determined to resurrect the group.

“Wilton and Joe are without a doubt two of the most creative and soulful people I’ve ever played with; we’ve been playing music together since we were pre-teens,” said Henderson, the group’s trombonist. “And since we’re getting up in age I wanted the opportunity to once again play with those cats.”

According to Sample, the two talked and apologized for anything that may have stood between the two so the group could reunite, which it did officially in 2009. Thought the group took a 30-plus year hiatus before their reunion, getting the old chemistry back didn’t take much effort.

“All it took was us in a room, ‘Hey, your remember this tune,’ and we were jamming,” said Henderson.

Joe Sample, seated, Stix Hooper and Wilton Felder

During a 2011 Defender interview Henderson noted, “Playing with the Crusaders again is something you can’t put into words. It’s like an ongoing conversation.  I’ve known Joe since we were 4 or 5 years old, and Wilton since we were 11.  It’s a continuing conversation.  Music is invigorating.”

“The best thing about playing with the Joe and Walter is the feeling of the music, and the playing of the music that can only be done by the original ones,” said saxophonist Wilton Felder.  “Its just not the same with others playing.”

Ten years ago, Sample returned to the Houston area to headline the 4th Annual Legacy Concert honoring Henriette Delille and benefiting Inner City Parochial Schools.

“I remember when I was in grade school the state of Texas wanted to demonstrate that separate was equal, so they put real money into our schools,” recalled Sample.  “I went to a brand new Wheatley High School.  But when I came back several years later it was in disrepair.”

The Joe Sample Youth Organization, Inc. (JSYO) was a non-profit organization born out of Sample’s experience returning home to Houston to see so many of the schools and neighborhoods in disrepair and in need of funding just to survive.

A 1999 trip back home allowed Sample to see firsthand public schools, in his estimation, not properly funded, and thus unable to give inner city students a competitive education.

“I also saw the catholic schools in need, especially with the older nuns who taught for free dying off, and no nuns coming behind them, which meant these schools would have to pay for quality teachers,” said Sample.  “I was asked by St. Mary’s to help raise funds for their playground equipment. And when that little jam session was successful the other Black catholic schools asked, ‘What about us?’ So we organized one concert to help them all.”

Upon reuniting, the group played to packed houses and sold-out venues all over the world, with the 2011 Legacy Concert being their first performance on home turf. The Jazz Crusaders played together until Sample’s passing on Sept. 12, 2014.