June 19, 2024

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Houston drummer Stix Hooper proves himself a jazz legend: Video, Photos

Stix Hooper grew up in Houston and became an international legend with the Crusaders. He offers a view of jazz’s past, present and future.

Since his childhood in the 1940s, Nesbert Hooper sat behind a drum kit with a pair of wooden implements that lent him his nickname. Stix Hooper has played on all manner of sessions: He was part of the Modern Jazz Sextet that morphed into the Jazz Crusaders and morphed again into the Crusaders. He’s also played scores of sessions for other artists in jazz, pop, rock and R&B. Stix served as a branch on all manner of musical trees.

With “Orchestrally Speaking,” Hooper transformed into Stick, a musician who transferred decades of work as drummer and composer and arranger into a gloriously lush set of orchestral jazz with Hooper yielding a baton rather than drumsticks.

The record is a loving and lovely culmination of what the Houston native started as a kid decades ago. He made and makes music without regard to prescribed genre. Hooper says the album didn’t feel like a stretch.

“My image is primarily as a guy playing a groove, getting funky and laying down a pocket,” he says. “This time, I’d met these great musicians from around the world. I wanted a new framework to express myself. There was no pretentiousness here. I felt my compositions allowed these musicians a platform to express themselves. And also gave my music a different dress to wear, so to speak.”

Pier Pressure Blues–Stix Hooper & Viewpoint - YouTube

Go west

Hooper has been in Los Angeles far longer than he was ever in Houston. That said, he was raised in this city and found kindred spirits at Wheatley High School. The stories of great jazz ensembles almost always involve players from varied places coming together through good fortune, luck or kismet. Such was not the case in Fifth Ward, where Wheatley students had first-class educators who pushed the high schoolers toward greatness. At Wheatley, Hooper met pianist Joe Sample and saxophonist Wilton Felder, and they created the Swingsters nearly 60 years ago. Like all great Houston jazz artists, the Swingsters could toggle between jazz and R&B, depending on the gig and the crowd. After high school, these players continued working together at Texas Southern, where they took on other members like trombonist Wayne Henderson and flutist Hubert Laws. They could play jazz as the Modern Jazz Sextet and R&B as the Night Hawks.

Then those players went west.

In retrospect the move seemed counterintuitive. New York was the hub for jazz in the late 1950s and 1960s, but these crusaders had familial connections out west and found a city that was eager for jazz, but not necessarily for their jazz.

“The reason we didn’t go to New York is that we liked having a front yard,” Hooper jokes. “But seriously, the relatives we had there offered us a cushion. In case we didn’t get gigs, we had a place to rest and be safe. But the West Coast was disappointing in some ways. A lot of the artists there were Caucasian Americans. It was harder to get a gig if you were Black. That’s why we came up with the name, the Modern Jazz Sextet. It was to get hired. To earn a living.”

Hooper cites Curtis Amy — an underheralded Houston native known for his long personal and working relationship with the great singer Merry Clayton — for taking care of the various Jazz Crusaders.

“Even that name, we dropped the ‘Jazz’ from it because there were these associations about what you should be,” he says. “A lot of it had to do with critical evaluation. Categorization can help you, but it can be a double-edged sword. There was a time people were talking about acid jazz. What is that? Do you take a chemistry class before playing it? I’ve always told people, I don’t play smooth jazz. I play lumpy jazz.”

A new crusade

The evolution of Hooper’s band is intriguing. The Modern Jazz Sextet became the Jazz Crusaders, who made several albums in the early 1960s because Amy vouched for them to the Pacific Jazz label.

The group recorded a progressive bebop through the ’60s but changed course around 1970 when jazz’s seams were being pulled in different directions: between avant garde, fusion and a simmering neo-traditionalism.

The Crusaders enjoyed formidable success in the 1970s. They crossed over from jazz into pop realms. Each member found frequent session work in a variety of musical settings. They were virtuosos in a city that valued virtuosos, where the music industry needed them to create perfect musical environments for all manner of pop, folk, rock, jazz and R&B performers.

“The West Coast launched us,” Hooper says. “We were able to put the pieces together there … in terms of spontaneity, musicianship, our creativity, under and not under the quote-unquote umbrella of the jazz genre. Being out there made all those things happen.”

He brings up Sample, who died in 2014. “Me and my dear friend, we were able to make connections around the world.”

Stix Hooper (@Stix_Hooper) / Twitter

Music and fishing

Admittedly, jazz critics were unkind to the Crusaders when the ensembles crusade involved dropping “Jazz” from the name. But with a long view, the Crusaders were trail guides for all manner of contemporary music that refuses to let jazz be cornered by rigid parameters.

“Shouldn’t it be about camaraderie between musicians?” Hooper says.

Camaraderie between musicians was Hooper’s goal with “Orchestrally Speaking.” For the album, released earlier this year, he moved away from the drum kit to put emphasis on his skills as a composer and arranger and bandleader. For a guy who could toggle effortlessly between jazz and R&B in Houston in the 1950s, the album feels like a natural progression. And it recontextualizes an artist best known for the skill set associated with his nickname.

At 84, Stix Hooper shows clearly that he can orchestrate a grand production. It’s both familiar and fresh. Here and there, new and old. Hooper makes a connection between the album and his long, distinguished career.

“This vacillates between my roots in Houston and this time where I was thinking about New York or Los Angeles,” he says. In addition to the absence of front yards in New York, he says he worried about an absence of fishing, an activity he’s continued from his childhood in Houston to the present.

“I’m very into fishing,” he says. “I used to do go fishing every week with my dad. And it wasn’t just about unity, it was about food. Now you can’t always eat what you catch, but I still think fishing is a great escape. More than hunting: Hunting came about with the invention of the bow and arrow. Fishing, that’s always been a part of the human experience.”

He finds himself heading to the Pacific Northwest to fish for salmon. While talking about fishing, he could easily be talking about making music.

“For me, like everybody, it feels like your life is about expansion, and you have to find an escape,” he says. “I grew up that way. So this is something I grew up with. It’s inundated in my system.”

Crusaders drummer Stix Hooper talks new KKJZ radio show, upcoming album –  Daily News

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