Wilton Felder : Remembering a Crusader

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Last month marked the passing of one of my favorite musicians, Wilton Felder, Tenor Saxophonist and co-founder of the legendary Jazz-Funk group The (Jazz) Crusaders, and a great session bass player as well. His brother Crusaders, Joe Sample and Wayne Henderson, pianist and trombonist respectively, passed last year, leaving drummer Nesbert “Stix” Hooper as the sole surviving founding member.

The Crusaders music is among the music closest to my heart, alongside that of the other legendary musicians of their era and every era since. The Crusaders music in particular stands out for me because they were able to create a sound that was both earthy and sophisticated at the same time. I got into their music, like so many artists I’ve mentioned on this blog, growing up in my household. My father, Herman, was a huge fan of their music. He was a fan of blues and jazz in all forms, from the chamber school, to the Big bands, from jazz vocalists and crooners, to the way out musicians of free jazz, and from field folk blues recordings to the electrified city blues, right on down to soul inflected blues. But I think at the end of the day the music I associate him with the most is the variations of jazz that tried to maintain it’s roots in the black community, jazz with a full bodied sound that excelled both as romantic music and at finger popping time.

There have been many artists that fit this category, such as Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Les McCann, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Milt Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Grover Washington Jr, Roy Ayers, George Duke, the list goes on and on and on. Many of these artists have faced more than their share of criticism over the years, mainly for “selling out”, the same charge I would see branded on artists chests like a scarlet letter in the Hip Hop 1990s. But I think there was something in particular about this type of music that reflected the type of person Dad was,and what his journey had been. All of these artists had the specialized, elite musical knowledge that it takes to play jazz, and yet retained a close connection to their roots in the rural and urban Black community’s of their day.

Pops left Arkansas in the late ’40s, serving in the military in the Korean War and eventually settling in San Francisco. He became a Lawyer and spent a large portion of his life in West Africa, in the Republic of Liberia, and was fortunate to do things very few got a chance to do during his time period. However, all of his close friends that I knew were similar in the same way. Their journeys had taken them many places. Most Black men I knew of that generation had very interesting journeys that took them into interesting areas, if they were trying to get anywhere at all. Their early experiences, picking cotton, vegetables, and other such humble experiences kept them grounded. Pops was well spoken, studious, strict in many ways, well read, imaginative, and very hip. Dad, and the members of his generation for the most part had seen and been through too much to reach the type of Black elitism and conservatism we see from people like Larry Elder and Dr. Ben Carson.

Now I did all of that personal talk to say, Mr. Wilton Felder and the Crusaders truly represented all of this in their music, as well as the way they came to making that music. The Crusaders came together in Houston, Texas, and made the decision to further their career in music in Los Angeles. The Bay Area, where I’m from, got it’s major influx of black residents in the 1940s-60s. The Crusaders came out to Los Angeles,and made someday fairly well received jazz albums. But the ’60s would prove to be a tough decade for jazz, with the free thing of Ornette Coleman alienating many listeners, the Motown sound booming and a general explosion of youth culture. By the end of the decade, The Crusaders had dropped the “Jazz” from their name, and some critics would argue from their sound.

The R&B fans always considered them a “Jazz” group however. Being excellent musicians they were able to supplement their income with studio work, and they were very prominent in the early years of Motown’s move to Los Angeles. It was during this time that Wilton Felder took up the bass guitar,on which he played some of my favorite basslines, such as “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” by Leon Haywood, “Slick” by Willie Hutch, “Root Down” by Jimmie Smith, and “I Want You Back”, the foundational hit for The Jackson 5.

Felder also wrote a song for The Crusaders that would jump start their prominence in the soul/pop arena, an instrumental entitled “Way Back Home.” “Way Back Home” is a soul-jazz song along the lines of records like Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Country Preacher.” The electric bass lays out a funky, rolling obstinato as the horns repeat the soothing melody over and over again, with the melody musically saying “Way Back Home”. The song is one that reminds you of the journey the Crusaders made from Texas to L.A, and the journeys many Black people had made in the 20th century along with them. I imagine my Dad listening to that record in Liberia, a decade into his sojourn in Africa. That song would go on to be covered by other Motown luminaries such as Jr. Walker and Gladys Knight and The Pips.

The Crusaders would go on to become the top selling instrumental group of their time. Their greatest success came with the Joe Sample penned “Street Life” in 1979. 1979-1980 were pivotal times for my family and our nation of Liberia. In 1980 Liberia would see it’s first successful coup de tat, the effects of which would be felt until 2006. That same year Felder released a song entitled “Inherit the Wind”, with Bobby Womack on lead vocals. Now my Dad was not one to say he had a “favorite song”, he was too broad based for that. But there is something about Felder’s “Inherit the Wind” that had a special meaning for Dad over he last thirty years or so of his life. The song was funky and upbeat, but also had notes of deeimagep wistful sadness and pain, being voiced by the master of soulful, joyful pain, Bobby Womack. The song is one that makes you want to dance and cry at the same time if u let it truly get to you, t least it does that for me. The chaos in Liberia would be a great disappointment to Dad until the day he died. I think “Inherit the Wind” gave him much comfort in those first few years after the coup especially.

I never got the chance to meet Felder, but I heard he was a very warm man. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, as Felder was, and my mother took care of his grand children at a Day care. I remember Dad got to meet Felder once at a Witness convention in Fremont. Of course he was totally shocked to meet a musician who’s career he’d followed for so long at his place of worship. I was not there to witness that meeting, but I can only imagine how excited Pops was.

The saxophone tone and funky bass playing of Wilton Felder will remain with me as long as I live. It’s a sound that reminds me of my roots. There is always a concern in the black community about getting so far away from your roots that u become basically a black zombie. I don’t know if that is as much of an issue today, as difficult as upward mobility has become. In Hip Hop during the last decade, they’d express it in somewhat corny sentiments such as “You can take me out the ghetto but you can’t take the ghetto out of me.” A variation of an old saying using he N word of course. The music of the soul jazz pioneers such as Wilton Felder, The Crusaders and others of their inclination totally transcends that for me, as they were able to meld the complex musical terminology of jazz theory with the down home music of the churches, porches, fields and pool halls. They were not ashamed of their backgrounds, and were therefore able to produce music that represented where they had been, where they were, and where they were going, without apology or chasing “respectability.” Therefore I think that in their music there is a blueprint for the type of progress the black community seeks to make in these early years of the 21st century. And though Wilton is gone along with several of his brothers, I will always take his example, and his sound with me.

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Filed under All That Jazz, FUNK, Music Matters

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