Pianist, composer, bandleader, jazz historian, Joe Sample has always resisted being confined to a box. A musician since childhood-at five, he was playing in his mother’s living room for after-church teas-he has explored everything from classical to bebop, gospel to fusion, settling finally on traditional jazz.
Sample will play a solo piano concert of contemporary interpretations of classic jazz standards by the likes of Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Fats Waller Oct. 16 at Smothers Theater Pepperdine.
Sample’s first solo piano jazz recording, “Soul Shadows” (Verve/PRA), dedicated to the musicians of the 1920s, is scheduled for release Oct. 14. The CD is specifically a tribute to James Reese Europe, the first African American bandleader, who founded the Clef Club in Harlem and worked with famed dance team Irene and Vernon Castle to create the fox trot.
Sample says he first heard of the jazz pioneer from his father, who was part of the famed 369th Regimental Band, the first to bring American jazz to France during World War I. “My father used to sing to me ‘How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm.’ It has haunted me all my life,” Sample says. “Then I found Europe’s recording of it in 1995. Finally I heard it on that recording; I had no idea it was the first civil rights song ever written.”
Sample says he began playing that song in 1995 at benefits in San Francisco. “Then I decided to record it.” When Karlene Boxenbaum, who did the art work for the CD, found Thomas L. Morgan’s biography of Europe for Sample last June, it answered a lot of questions.
As a young musician, Sample says, “I always wondered where our music came from. I’ve become a bit of a historian of jazz and all African American music.”
While researching the history of African American music, Sample had found the beginnings of the local music in New Orleans. “I went through 45 history books and saw bits and pieces about James Reese Europe. There were pictures of the 1919 parade to welcome home the 369th Regiment that appeared in the motion picture ‘Stormy Weather,’ Sample says. “Reading Europe’s biography has given me a clearer understanding of why he has been so important not only to me, but to all of us.”
A native of Houston, after three years at Texas Southern University, Sample moved to Los Angeles in 1958 with the dance band he formed in school. Sample founded the Jazz Crusaders along with trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxman Wilton Felder and drummer Stix Hooper. The Crusaders patterned themselves after Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, only without a trumpet, and became renowned for their unique tenor sax and trombone front line.
“By 1961, I knew I had to be an instrumentalist, playing the music I wanted to do,” Sample says. “Then everything changed in 1982. I felt we lost the true meaning of American music.”
In the mid-’90s, he relocated to his hometown of Houston where he built a home with his fiancé, Yolanda. “I realized I had to live the rest of my life near the origins of my music,” he says. “I built this wonderful piano room and recorded in it the music I valued when I was a youngster.”
The “Soul Shadows” CD reflects this with Sample’s reinterpretations of classics like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Jitterbug Waltz,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp,” Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” (played at its original slower tempo) and Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” The title tune, “Soul Shadows” and “Spellbound” are Sample’s compositions. All of the dozen tunes in the set are a joyous lot.
“I’m fascinated with music that uplifts you. I saw music change in the ’60s and I always resented anyone trying to impress me with technique,” Sample says. “The old music came from the people, the culture. To me, music must have the power to heal. It can transport us to someplace else. That’s why the classics have endured.”
Joe Sample’s solo piano concert, 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at Smothers Theater Pepperdine. 310.506.4522