June 24, 2024


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Jazz legend Joe Sample honored with an epic headstone: Video, Photos

Joe Sample died and was laid to rest nearly three years ago. The Houston jazz legend had survived a pair of heart attacks, one in 1994 and another in 2009. But mesothelioma took him in Sept. 2014 at age 75.

Sample was buried at Paradise North Cemetery in Inwood. Then followed a period of three years where a proper headstone was created for a keyboardist who achieved crossover success and renown in the 1970s. The stone was placed at Sample’s grave site earlier this summer. This past weekend, a ceremony marked its placement and the third anniversary of his passing.

Yolanda Sample, his widow, envisioned a marker honoring the greatness of her husband’s career. She wrote beautifully about the process behind creating the marker. She described a trip to Austria on vacation, rather than traveling for a gig. Sample wanted to see the monuments to composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

“The trip was in essence a pilgrimage for Joe to experience Vienna. He wanted to feel and see what had inspired the masters to create the music. We walked through the city, visited historic sites, then drove to the countryside for lunch at a castle. He absorbed everything God had blessed Vienna with from the smell of the air to how the sunlight shone. God was speaking and Joe was listening.”

Yolanda said she had a dream that directed her toward creating a headstone for Sample.

“The first stipulation was that the stone had to be the exact size and shape of a seven-foot grand piano. Although his preference was to play a nine-foot concert grand piano, this was the type piano Joe commonly used when performing.”

True to that vision, the face of Sample’s headstone is a towering top of a piano, with his name, and the description “Jazz Pianist and Composer.” Beneath the keys etched into stone is a bit of sheet music for “True to You,” and Sample’s quote, “The most perfect song I’ve ever written.”

On the backside of the stone appear the liner notes Sample wrote in 2002 for his album “The Pecan Tree” with a pecan tree carved into the rock.

Wrote Yolanda: “The music that he composed for that album showcased glimpses into his early life in Houston.”

Though he first started playing music here, Sample traveled far from Houston to make his name. At Wheatley High School in the 1950s, Sample began performing in the Swingsters with local musicians like trombonist Wayne Henderson, saxophonist Wilton Felder and flutist Hubert Laws and drummer Stix Hooper. The group became the Modern Jazz Sextet at Texas Southern.

Sample recalled growing up in the Fifth Ward, where his parents would go to the la la dances before the music took on the name zydeco. He was around ten when they took him to see the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.

“He had a band that was just as wonderful as the band Ray Charles had put together in the ’50s,” Sample told the Chronicle. “He was such a powerful player.”

The Modern Jazz Sextet moved to Los Angeles and found a nurturing mentor in the Houston blues great Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who helped the members find session work when they weren’t gigging together. The group became the Jazz Crusaders in the ’60s, carrying on a bebop tradition before looking to push it in a different direction.

The Jazz Crusaders morphed into the Crusaders, one of the great crossover bands of the 1970s, who brought jazz to a pop audience, or a pop audience to jazz. (Sample talked about reuniting the band a few years ago here.)

Sample during that time also became a first call session pianist for all manner of recordings. He played with Albert King and B.B. King, Joni Mitchell and Blue Mitchell, Henry Mancini, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, Steely Dan. The list really is far too long for print.

Sample remained a prolific recording artist under his own name, too. He produced numerous wonderful recordings, though I’d recommend “Invitation” from 1993 as a point of entry for newcomers.

He eventually made his way back to Houston, and here became nostalgic for the music of his youth.

“Blues is like the white dust in the neighborhood from the oyster-shell streets,” he told me. “It’s a natural thing in this region. Certain things I can play with musicians from here that I cannot play with other musicians from Chicago or Seattle or Boston or New York. They simply do not feel it.”

He talked at greater length about his connection to Houston in this feature, which was the last time I had the good fortune to talk to him.

That hometown vibe is echoed in Yolanda’s comments about her husband’s “The Pecan Tree” album and the notes he wrote for it.

“What Joe had written told the story of how growing up in Houston inspired and shaped his music,” she wrote, “just as the great composers had been inspired by Vienna.”

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