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Jazz Crusaders

Jazz Crusaders - band/ensemble

In 1961, four fellows from Houston transplanted themselves to Los Angeles and added more distinctly bluesy elements to the soul jazz style with an ear-grabbing album called “The Freedom Sound,” on the Pacific Jazz label. Its four co-leaders were trombonist Wayne Henderson, tenor saxophonist (and occasional bassist) Wilton Felder, pianist Joe Sample, and drummer Nesbert "Stix" Hooper.

They first joined together in Houston in the fifties with the formation of The Swingsters, the group’s embracing of many different musical styles starts where it normally does, at the beginning. “Because we came up on the streets and not in the studios,” says Felder, “our music was live. The Texas streets were rich with the blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins. We grew up on all the deep country sounds. At the same time, we had ears for modern jazz�"Miles and Monk�"and never saw a contradiction between the old and new.” It’s no surprise, then, that once in senior high, The Swingsters became The Modern Jazz Sextet, a group that continued through their college years at Texas Southern University. Before graduation, though, the call of the road was irresistible, and they were off to L.A.

Two years later, in 1960, the group was signed to Pacific Jazz Records and re-christened The Jazz Crusaders. Their trombone/sax frontline sound was unique, their bop chops impeccable. In a series of superlative albums, The Jazz Crusaders built a national reputation, surviving a decade in which the popularity of jazz was in extreme decline. On one hand, the British Invasion and Motown dominated the youth market; on the other, the jazz avant-garde alienated scores of fans.

The Jazz Crusaders sound caught on big time, and their subsequent Pacific Jazz albums rewarded them with a good deal of exposure. The band performed regularly and got plenty of airplay. But as times changed, so did the Jazz Crusaders. In the late Sixties, they placed popular songs in their repertoire, and firm backbeats began to bolster many a selection. By 1971, they decided that the word "jazz" kept them from attracting a wider listener base, and so they emerged anew with “The Crusaders, Vol. 1,” (Chisa), an album that openly infused jazz with pop, soul, and R&B elements.

If the Jazz Crusaders had achieved some degree of popularity, it was nothing like the crossover success that greeted the Crusaders. Such albums as “Scratch,” “Southern Comfort,” “Chain Reaction,” “Those Southern Knights,” “Free as the Wind,” “Images, Street Life,” and “Royal Jam” (recorded variously for the Chisa, ABC Blue Thumb, and MCA labels) sold well and brought in a deluge of new fans. Street Life’s title track, with Randy Crawford on vocals, provided the Crusaders with a major crossover hit in 1979.

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