THE CRUSADERS. The Crusaders, originally from Houston’s Fifth Ward, were among the leading exponents of jazz-rock or jazz-funk fusion music in the 1970s and 1980s. The nucleus of the band—drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper, pianist Joe Sample, saxophonist and bassist Wilton Felder, and trombonist Wayne Henderson—began playing together in the early 1950s as students at Houston’s Smith Junior High School, then at Phyllis Wheatley High School and Texas Southern University; the other original members included flutist Hubert Laws, who went on to an extremely successful solo jazz career, and bassist Henry Wilson.
As the Swingsters, formed in 1954, they played a mix of jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues, blending various musical influences into what they later called the “Gulf Coast sound.” They soon decided to concentrate on hard bop, however, and renamed themselves the Modern Jazz Sextet in emulation of New York’s Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1958 Hooper, Sample, Felder, and Henderson decided to leave Houston and move to Los Angeles but found jazz gigs hard to come by. They changed their name to the Nite Hawks and spent several months as the house band at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas before deciding to return to Los Angeles and playing the music they loved. Saxophonist Curtis Amy, a fellow Houstonian, got them an audition with the Pacific Jazz label, and their first album, Freedom Sound, came out in 1961. By that time they were calling themselves the Jazz Crusaders, reportedly at the suggestion of Hooper’s wife Ramona.
As the Jazz Crusaders, they recorded nineteen albums from 1961 to 1970, sixteen of them for Pacific Jazz. In the latter year, however, they took a break from recording and reemerged with yet another new name—this time they called themselves simply the Crusaders—and a new, electrified jazz-funk sound, featuring Sample on electric piano, Larry Carlton on electric guitar, and Robert ‘Pops’ Popwell on electric bass.
As the Crusaders, their albums in the 1970s appeared regularly on both the jazz and pop charts. As another sign of their crossover appeal, in 1975 they became the first and only instrumental group to tour with rock-and-roll legends the Rolling Stones. Their most successful album was Street Life, released in 1979, which reached the Top 20 on the Billboard jazz, pop, and black album charts; the title song, with vocals by Randy Crawford, also reached the Top 40 pop singles chart.
During this period, the members of the band were also making names for themselves as solo artists and studio musicians. Sample probably enjoyed the most success; among the hit albums on which he appeared are Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On (1973), Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (1974), Steely Dan’s Aja (1977), and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer (1984).
At the same time, however, many mainstream jazz critics considered them sellouts, who had abandoned jazz for a more commercial sound, and dismissed their music as “formulaic,” “bland,” “shallow,” and “repetitious,” which was a source of some irritation for the band members, who felt they were simply playing accessible music that drew on their roots in the Lone Star State. Hooper told a writer for Down Beat magazine, “I don’t like critics or even other musicians who put you down because you’re a commercial success.” Sample later admitted to another interviewer, “We used to sort of suppress the R&B feeling—trying to play like the New York jazzers did or like they did out on the West Coast…. Even when we thought we were playing jazz…there was that Texas side of it that would come out.”
This was also a period of rapid personnel change. Founding member Henderson left in 1975 to pursue a career as a producer, and various guitarists and bass players came and went. In 1983 Hooper also left, leaving Sample and Felder as the group’s last remaining founding members. The Crusaders finally called it quits in 1991 with Healing the Wounds. In 1995, however, trombonist Henderson formed a new outfit which included Felder, Laws, and Carlton and called it the Jazz Crusaders, over Sample’s objections. The situation grew even more complicated in 2003, when Felder reunited with Sample and Hooper to record an album, Rural Renewal, as the Crusaders, while Henderson’s Jazz Crusaders released an album titled Soul Axess. In 2010 Sample, Henderson, and Felder reunited and made plans for a tour. Due to health problems, Felder had to drop out of the lineup, but Sample and Henderson embarked on the reunion tour that also included saxophonist Gerald Albright, bassist Reggie Sullivan, and drummer Moyes Lucas.
All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), accessed March 23, 2009. Brian Case and Stan Britt, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, 3rd ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1986). Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 2002). James Liska, “Joe Sample and Wilton Felder: The Lone Crusaders,” Down Beat 50 (November, 1983). Lee Underwood, “The Crusaders: Knights without Jazz,” Down Beat 43 (June 17, 1976).