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Joe Sample dies at 75; influential jazz-funk pianist

Pianist and composer Joe Sample onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011.
Pianist and composer Joe Sample onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011.
(Jean-Christophe Bott, AFPGetty Images)

Influential keyboardist Joe Sample, who helped push the boundaries of jazz and funk as a member of the Jazz Crusaders, died Friday in Houston. He was 75.

Sample’s career with the Jazz Crusaders began as a hard bop group in Texas in the late ‘50s before the group migrated to the West Coast, releasing a string of hit albums that began in 1961 with “Freedom Sound.” Teamed with saxophonist Wilton Felder, drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper and trombonist Wayne Henderson (who died this year), Sample helped lead the group toward mainstream success with a blend of jazz, funk and R&B, a sound that eventually led to the group dropping “jazz” from their name in 1971 and becoming the Crusaders.

Some of Sample’s hits with the Crusaders include “Soul Shadows,” “Put It Where You Want It,” and 1979’s “Street Life” (with vocals by Randy Crawford) before the group broke up in 1987. Sample went on to a successful solo career that also yielded high-profile collaborations on recordings with Marvin Gaye, Lalah Hathaway, Steely Dan, BB King and Anita Baker.

His playing also made an impression on modern hip-hop, with samples of his work appearing on a variety of tracks, including Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama.”

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“I try extremely hard not to play the same way that I did in the ‘70s,” Sample told The Times in 1992. “Once I start playing like that, I feel like I’m dealing with ghosts. I feel like I’m washed up, finished, and done, like I have no future at all. The future is always trying to figure out what I am going to do next.”

Sample’s manager, Patrick Rains, confirmed to the Associated Press on Saturday that Sample died as a result of complications from lung cancer with his family at his side. He is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and son, Nicklas, who is also a musician.

Want to read more but in 140-character bursts? Follow me @chrisbarton.


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