Sylvester “Stank” LeBlanc, considered by many to be one of Houston’s premier jazz musicians passed away on May 20, 2020. When reflecting upon his legacy as an educator and performer, Sylvester’s imprint as leader of Houston’s Fifth Ward Express and as a high school band director can be viewed as the stuff of legends. As a human being with a jovial personality, he exuded an intense love for playing music, had a passion for educating students and was quick with a kind word for anyone he met along the way. One of the more illuminating facets of Sylvester’s life was his nickname, one that began as a youngster growing up in Helbig, a town just north of Beaumont, Texas. From the moment he fell into a pile of what was thought to be cow manure when he was a child, the name “Stank” was acquired and would follow Sylvester LeBlanc throughout the remainder of his life.
Sylvester LeBlanc’s journey into the realm of music began as a student while attending Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont. From there and at the urging of his high school band director, “Stank” enrolled in Texas Southern University, whereby he earned a B.A. Degree in Instrumental Music Education with an emphasis on the flute. While attending TSU, he met and played with John Roberts in the group John Roberts and the Hurricanes for several years. In yet another turn of events during Sylvester’s career, he and Milton Holliman organized the 5th Ward Express, thought to be one of the most significant groups in and around Houston. The band was in so much demand, they were one of two Houston groups appearing in the 1973 Astrodome Jazz Festival, the other being Bubbha Thomas and The Light Men Plus 1. Other opportunities for the 5th Ward Express included opening for national acts such as Barry White, Nancy Wilson, Teddy Pendergrass, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and a host of others. In addition to those notable accomplishments, the group became known for sounding similar to The Crusaders, which was a definite complement to their immense talent. One of the most noteworthy gems Sylvester possessed was his album ‘From Helbig to Pasadena,’ (Fantasy Records) a recording that made a tremendous impact internationally, in total he recorded three albums.
Other tantalizing aspects of LeBlanc’s career included serving as an assistant band director under Conrad Johnson, the band director at Kashmere Gardens High School, where the world-renown Kashmere. Gardens High School Stage Band garnered numerous awards and accolades. When Conrad Johnson retired, Sylvester maintained the tradition founded by Mr. Johnson. Once his time at Kashmere High School ended, Sylvester moved to Los Angeles, California where he became the band director at Compton’s Dominguez High School. Before returning to Houston some years later, he did a stint as a solo performer at Disneyland, which continued a well-traveled journey full of memories.
Sylvester LeBlanc’s passing leaves an indelible mark on Houston’s music scene and beyond that is as big as the State of Texas. He stands alongside the talented embrace of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, The Crusaders, Bubbha Thomas, Don Wilkerson, Hubert Laws, Marsha Frazier, Sebastian Whitaker, Billy Harper, Ronnie Laws, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and those who kept the music playing for all to enjoy. His influence on musicians including Joe Carmouche, Lawrence Overshawn, Kyle Turner and a host of others, invariably follows a long-standing tradition of excellence. As an alumnus of Texas Southern University and a world-class musician/educator, KTSU was proud to include Sylvester “Stank” LeBlanc in the 2013 KTSU Jazz Hall of Fame Calendar. Kudos to the life and legacy of he graciously shared with the world of music.
Sheldon T. Nunn