Even the most implacable of bebop purists, fastidiously queasy about any departures from Charlie Parker, had a sneaking admiration for the Crusaders – the American jazz-funk pioneers who, in their 1960s heyday, could build a monstrous groove out of what often seemed little more than the swish of a hi-hat and the bluesy dance of a handful of keyboard chords.
They put together a shrewd mix of popular hard-bop jazz, dancefloor rhythms and showmanship that kept them at the top of their game for decades, always sounding like jazz lovers having fun, not defectors trying to dumb their music down. Now the original bluesy dancer over the Crusaders' keys, Joe Sample, has died of mesothelioma, aged 75.
Sample's pop-composer's ear for a catchy riff, and the coolly melodic yet quietly drum-like way he built his solos, lay at the heart of the band's affably sensuous sound. He was a thoughtful, open and talented jazz all-rounder who, in his later years, took to celebrating classic jazz-piano landmarks. His new interpretations of Scott Joplin's ragtime music, Fats Waller's stride-piano swing and the hits of Duke Ellington were eagerly anticipated in August at Ronnie Scott's club in London, a trip regretfully cancelled by Sample as his health declined.
He was born in Houston, Texas, the fourth of five siblings, including an older brother who was to play in a band led by the blues saxophonist Earl Bostic. Joe took up piano at the age of five, and in high school joined a trio called the Swingsters, which included the saxophonist Wilton Felder and was led by the drummer Nesbert 'Stix' Hooper. At Texas Southern University Sample discovered the trombonist Wayne Henderson, the bassist Henry Wilson and the flautist Hubert Laws, and the now six-strong group worked modestly around Houston in the mid-50s under the name of the Modern Jazz Sextet.
It was a move by four of the members to Los Angeles at the end of that decade that changed their fortunes, and – now calling themselves the Jazz Crusaders – they recorded their debut album, Freedom Sound, for the jazz label Pacific in 1961. Mainly playing in the punchy, soul-inflected hard-bop style popular at the time (the state- of-the-art practitioners were Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, who inspired their name), the group added their own kind of blues-rooted funkiness that many fans identified as a particularly Texan ingredient. Catchy melodies played in sax/trombone unison and a coolly understated rhythm-section touch also became their signature qualities.
Sometimes featuring a guitarist, they performed regularly on the West Coast and released several successful albums for Pacific. But then they reduced their live schedule and concentrated on recording from 1968, when Sample, Hooper and Felder began developing lucrative careers as session musicians and Henderson became a producer.
Sample's session activity in those years included work for pop stars such as Diana Ross and the Jackson Five, and he also appeared for the classy West Coast hard-bop quintet led by the saxophonist Harold Land and the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. He toured with Joni Mitchell as a member of LA Express 1973-74) and contributed to hits by Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Steely Dan and BB King.
The rise of progressive rock in the 70s severely dented the commercial appeal of conventional acoustic jazz, but the Crusaders' already dance-friendly sound made them better suited to the change than most of the era's jazz artists. Some canny modifications followed, notably with the arrival of a gifted electric guitarist, Larry Carlton, in 1970. The lineup also adapted to include electric bass and keyboards, and with the repertoire widening to include Beatles hits, they sharply expanded their audience, not always to the delight of the jazz cognoscenti.
Soon they had dropped the word "jazz" from their name, and the 1971 album Crusaders 1, with four Sample compositions on its tracklist, was noticeable for a more explicitly hard-hitting rock approach. The high point of this Crusaders period was the 1979 single Street Life, written by Sample and fellow Texan songwriter Will Jennings as a vocal for singer Randy Crawford. It was a chart hit in the US and UK and still receives considerable radio airplay.
The Crusaders' lineup changed periodically following Henderson's departure to pursue a career in production in 1975. Sample and Felder remained as co-leaders, as well as sustaining busy freelance lives in the studios – with Sample developing an increasingly personal sound on electric instruments, as he tellingly displayed on clavinet with the soul-saxist Ronnie Laws on the 1975 club hit, Always There.
Sample and Felder disagreed artistically and wound up the band in 1988, and Sample then concentrated on the ideas he had been nurturing since his leadership of the 1969 Fancy Dance session, a gospelly, bop-blues trio he set up with the bassist Red Mitchell and the drummer JC Moses. This had led to Carmel (1979) and several strings-accompanied early 80s albums under his name, confirming that he remained a subtle refiner of familiar musical materials and a piano soloist of percussive punch and delicate melodic concision.
There were occasional Crusaders reunions, and in 2004 Sample surprised his long-time fans with another solo album, Soul Shadows, in which he revealed just how profound his jazz sensibility remained. It contained vivacious accounts of evergreens such as Joplin's The Entertainer, Waller's Jitterbug Waltz and the classic George Gershwin swinger, I Got Rhythm. Children of the Sun, Sample's last album, is due out this autumn.
Sample is survived by his wife Yolanda and his sister, Julia, his son Nicklas, three stepsons and six grandchildren.
• Joseph Leslie Sample, jazz musician, born 1 February 1939; died 12 September 2014
This article was written by John Fordham, for theguardian.com on Monday 15th September 2014 18.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010