Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Jazz Crusaders - Looking Ahead

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Still present in their performance is the great fire and the constant regard for form and content upon which to build solos. Again, the listener will find the music still rooted firmly in the tradition and growing inevitably from the blues. But there remains the close attention also to program content - including rhythmic variety, emotional range, the ballad form, the blues and selection of challenging harmonic make-up.

But it is this willingness to bend double to stay together as a group that I think is the real key to their thoroughly integrated approach to the music.  I don’t think that it is going out on a limb too far to say that among the harder hitting small jazz bands in the nation today that the Crusaders achieve a unique blend of drive and organization, of abandon and form.”
- John William Hardy, liner notes to Jazz Crusaders Looking Ahead [Pacific Jazz PJ-43]

Little did John William Hardy know how prescient some of his comments were when he wrote these liner notes in 1962 for the Jazz Crusaders second LP with the Pacific Jazz label.

Even his reference to “... the Crusaders,” omitting the antecedent “Jazz” was spot on as the group changed its name in the 1970s to eliminate the Jazz reference in its quest to attract a larger audience in order to stay viable [read: pay the rent; feed the family].

Not too many Jazz groups that went professional in the 1960s were able to keep themselves together for 50 years! But the Jazz Crusaders’ “ … willingness to bend double to stay together” was one of the factors that made it possible for them to do so. One could say then that The Jazz Crusaders had truly mastered the art of Looking Ahead!

With the advent of the Beatles and the subsequent development of what is now referred to as Classic Rock, the 1960s saw a mass migration away from Jazz by the listening public, especially the younger one.

Big bands, Jazz combos, piano-bass-drums trio, popular vocalists singing songs from The Great American Songbook, all were eventually replaced by various forms of Rock ‘n Roll, or the music of balladeers such as Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, or by a generation of Motown vocal groups, or by some forms of Jazz Rock Fusion such as Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke and Lennie White, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s group, Steely Dan.

Rock even managed to infuse itself into some elements of Country and Western Music. This new form was given the name - Rockabilly. Groups such as Crosby, Stills and Nash added Rock overtones to Folk Music which then became Folk Rock aided and abetted by the likes of as did Bob Dylan, The Band The Searchers, The Animals and The Byrds, among many others.

Of course, Rock pervaded Jazz as well with trumpeter Miles Davis leading the way in his customary role as trendsetter. What followed usually fell into two categories: the “harder” Jazz Rock Fusion bands initially exemplified by ex-Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime or [2] the “smoother” Jazz Rock groups of which Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter [both of whom also played in Miles’ band] were a main exponent in their group Weather Report.

Smooth Jazz, as it came to be known, was basically comprised of a two chord formula which oscillated back and forth over a light Rock beat. The melodies were simple and straightforward, the beat was insistent and uncomplicated and this combination created a style of Jazz that was accessible to a wider audience.

After the Rock Invasion, some Jazz musicians in New York and Los Angeles who had the reading skills to do it “retreated” into the world of studio music which became the soundtracks for radio jingles, TV commercials and movie scores while others found their way into Jazz Rock Fusion bands or they joined the more popular and commercial Smooth Jazz trend.
Many Jazz fans who favored the modern Jazz styles that evolved from approximately 1945-1965 were disappointed with the Jazz Rock Fusion and Smooth Jazz approaches to the music, but it is important to keep in mind that if music is what you do to earn a living, then at some point it becomes imperative to make a choice as to how you want to go about doing that.

Interestingly, very early on, the Jazz Crusaders had a great deal of practice with different approaches to Jazz and you can hear this versatility on the recordings they made for Pacific Jazz in the 1960’s as they feature everything from hard bop to boogaloo to modal Jazz to Latin Jazz.

The Jazz Crusaders, then, started as a Hard-Bop group, transitioned to a Jazz-Rock group and finished up as a Smooth Jazz group. You can read about some of their stylistic transitions from 1961 - 1982 in the listing of Down Beat articles contained in the bibliography at the end of this piece as compiled by Thomas Owens for The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.

The initial band was formed in the early 1950s by three high-school students in Houston: pianist Joe Sample, tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder, and  drummer Stix Hooper, who was the group's leader.

Their first name was the Swingsters and the band soon added trombonist Wayne Henderson, flutist Hubert Laws, and bass player Henry Wilson.

Now, as the Modern Jazz Sextet, the band played locally around the greater Houston, TX area during high school and college years.

In the late 1950s Sample, Felder, Hooper, and Henderson moved to California, and changed the group's name to the Night Hawks, and later the Jazz Crusaders (1961). In that year, augmented by the addition of Jimmy Bond on bass player, the band made its first recordings for Pacific Jazz. The Jazz Crusaders soon became extremely successful and stayed with Pacific Jazz recording 16 LPs for the labels between 1961-1969

By 1968 Sample, Hooper, and Felder had become active as studio musicians, and Henderson was working increasingly as a record producer. They ceased touring and concentrated instead on making recordings.

In 1971 they shortened the group's name to the Crusaders and began playing music heavily influenced by rock, soul, and the popular style funk. Sample used electronic keyboards as well as piano and electric piano, and in the mid-1970s the ensemble included Larry Carlton (electric guitar) and Max Bennett (electric bass guitar).

This change of approach brought considerable commercial success, and in 1979 the group's recording Street Life became a substantial hit. Henderson left in 1975, and Hooper in 1983; the latter was replaced by Leon Ndugu Chancler. Sample and Felder continued to lead the group in various iterations until their death in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Freedom Sound (1961, PJ 27); Chile Con Soul (1965, PI 20092); The Festival Album (1966, PJ 20115); Crusaders I (1971, Blue Thumb 6001); Scratch (1974, Blue Thumb 6010); Free as the Wind (1976. Blue Thumb 6029); Street Life (1979, MCA 3094); Royal Jam (1981, MCA 8017); Ongaku kai: Live in Japan (1982, Crusaders 16002)

J. Tynan: "Meet the Jazz Crusaders," DB, xxx/14 (1963), 18
H.Siders: "The Crusaders: Four of a Kind," DB, xl/13 (1973), 16
L. Underwood: "The Crusaders: Knights without Jazz," DB, xliii/12 (1976),
12 [incl. discography]
H. Nolan: "The Crusaders: the Sweet and Sour Smell of Success," DB, xlv/
9(1978), 12
A.J. Liska: "The Lone Crusaders," DB, I/I I (1983), 20 find, discography)

The following video montage of the Jazz Crusaders features the Dulzura track from their 1965 Chili Con Soul Pacific Jazz LP [PJ 10092] on which they reunite with flutist Hubert Laws, Jr. who was one of the original members of the group.

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