Jazz Great Joe Sample Didn’t Let Mesothelioma Slow His Tempo

Photo by Tom Beetz

Photo by Tom Beetz

Although mesothelioma this month claimed legendary jazz pianist Joe Sample, the founding member of The Crusaders never once let the disease stop him from living life to the fullest.

Sample, 75, who received treatment from top mesothelioma clinic MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was until recently on a concert tour with Louisiana-style zydeco band Creole Joe.

He also was busy collaborating on a book and a musical production with folk singer Jonatha Brooke.

But it was his work with The Crusaders and, before that, The Jazz Crusaders for which Sample will best be remembered.

The Crusaders was an influential band noted for blending soulful jazz with a danceable beat.

During the nearly 15 years of the band’s existence, Sample and his fellow Crusaders cranked out a string of hit albums. In 1979, they had a Top 40 single, “Street Life.”

Before The Crusaders, the band went by the name The Jazz Crusaders. Same guys, different sound. The Jazz Crusaders specialized in bebop accented by rhythm-and-blues and was huge in the Sixties.

The Jazz Crusaders recorded more than 40 albums, nearly half of which ended up as Billboard 200 chart-climbers.

After The Crusaders decided to go their separate ways in 1987, Sample continued on as a solo act. He had experience playing alone. In fact, it was something he’d been doing steadily on the side since 1969.

Sample’s final solo album was completed not long before the mesothelioma overtook him. It’s slated to be released in coming weeks. The album’s title is “Children of the Sun,” the New York Times reports.

As a sideline to his soloing, the tireless Sample also worked as a studio musician.

You can hear him tickling the ebony and ivory keys in albums by Canned Heat, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan.

Sample Before He Developed Mesothelioma

Born in 1939, Sample was just 5 when he took up piano playing. He was a Houston native — and because Houston is near New Orleans, Sample was exposed to both country music and jazz while growing up.

It was in high school that Sample started playing in a band. The band was called The Swingsters, made up of the same personnel that would later man The Jazz Crusaders.

Sample and The Swingsters were hired to play a number of gigs in and around Houston for the next few years.

But the band didn’t take off until they changed the name to The Jazz Crusaders, focused on hard bop, and relocated to Southern California.

The first Jazz Crusaders album came out in 1961. It was titled “Freedom Sound” and proved popular with audiences and critics alike.

Two years later, Sample increased the voltage of the band’s appeal by switching from standard to electric piano. The electric piano was from then on a Sample trademark.

Mesothelioma Not Joe Sample’s Only Problem

In 2001, Sample said goodbye to California and went back home to Houston.

Mesothelioma wasn’t his only health issue. Twice he suffered heart attacks — the most recent in 2009. The Los Angeles Times says he also once battled Epstein-Barr virus, which produces crippling fatigue.

Last year, Sample was hospitalized with pneumonia, according to Variety, the Hollywood and music-industry trade paper.

Sample passed away on Sept. 15. He is survived by wife Yolanda, son Nicklas, stepsons Jamerson III, Justin, and Jordan Berry, six grandchildren, and sister Julia Goolsby.

After Sample’s death, the family posted the following at Facebook: “His wife Yolanda and his son Nicklas would like to thank all of you, his fans and friends, for your prayers and support during this trying time.

“Please know that Joe was aware and very appreciative of all of your prayers, comments, letters/cards and well wishes.”