Born: December 18, 1897 | Died: December 28, 1952 Primary Instrument: Arranger
The bands Fletcher Henderson led in the 1920s and 1930s were vitally significant incubators of new developments in jazz. Henderson played a key role in bringing improvisatory jazz styles from New Orleans and other areas of the country to New York, where they merged with a dance-band tradition that relied heavily on arrangements written out in musical notation. The new music that developed at Henderson's hands and under his mentorship allowed the composer's art to flourish, yet left room for the improvisatory talents of individual jazz soloistsstriking a balance that has influenced jazz ever since.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, on December 18, 1897, James Fletcher Henderson enjoyed the best education available, his father was a teacher and a school principal, and both his parents played the piano. Henderson started piano studies at age six, but it was the classical compositions of Europe that he was taught; his parents frowned upon vernacular or down- home black traditions. He attended prep school in Atlanta and then moved on to Atlanta University, graduating in 1920 with a degree in chemistry.
Henderson moved north in 1920 hoping for a career as a research chemist, but the best he could do was a job as a lab assistant. His musical talents turned out to be more useful when he was hired the following year by the Pace & Handy music publishing firm and then by the new black-oriented Black Swan record label. His classical background and music-notation skills attracted notice at Black Swan, and when the company prepared for a national tour by its prime property, blues vocalist Ethel Waters, Henderson became the leader of her backing group.
The experience gave Henderson an education in African- American rhythms. Then, as he led bands in various New York venues in the early 1920s, he proved to have a keen ear for emerging solo talents. His ten-piece band in 1923 included saxophonists Don Redman and Coleman Hawkins, and by the following year, when he began a 12-year residence at New York's Roseland Ballroom, the band had grown to 16 players. One of them was a recent arrival from New Orleans, a cornet player named Louis Armstrong who remained with Henderson for 14 months.
With Redman writing the band's arrangements and all the instrumentalists in the band responding in inspired ways to Armstrong's innovations as a jazz soloist, Henderson's band evolved into one of the top ensembles in the country. With Armstrong leading the way, the band recorded some of its best known works, including Copenhagen, Go 'Long Mule, Shanghai Shuffle and the band's first hit, Sugar Foot Stomp. Redman's arrangements and Henderson's own, which he began to write after Redman left to form his own band in 1927, contained the features familiar to anyone who has ever heard a classic swing recording: sectional interplay between brasses and reeds, a smooth sheen that did not foreclose a propulsive dance-floor energy, and well- conceived interludes that called upon the improvisatory skills and styles of individual players. Another important contributor to the Henderson sound was saxophonist Benny Carter, in whose arrangements the Henderson band became a natural extension of his own saxophone playing.
The orchestra recorded with dozens of record companies under a number of different names and pseudonyms including Henderson's Dance Orchestra, Henderson's Club Alabam Orchestra, The Dixie Stompers, Henderson's Happy Six Orchestra, Fletcher Henderson and his Sawin' Six, Louisiana Stompers and the Connie's Inn Orchestra.
One bandleader influenced heavily by Henderson's innovations was Duke Ellington, who credited Henderson with inspiring the sound toward which he aimed in his initial forays. Another was the white clarinetist Benny Goodman, who began purchasing Henderson's arrangements. That helped keep Henderson afloat during a difficult period that resulted from the Great Depression slowdown and from the effects of an auto crash that temporarily sidelined Henderson in 1928. With few records being made at the height of the Depression in the early 1930s, Henderson's style at the point when swing was developing and becoming a distinct genre is sparsely documented. But Goodman and other musicians have repeatedly attested to Henderson's importance. Goodman's trademark number, King Porter Stomp, derives largely from a Henderson arrangement. Goodman even used the same arrangements as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra had used. The band went on to become one of the most popular of the Swing bands.
Henderson's own popularity suffered somewhat in the 1930s as his band began to face competition from those led by Ellington, Count Basie, the Dorsey Brothers, and others. His band temporarily broke up when he ran out of money to pay them after a Detroit trip in 1934. He continued to spot and hire important emerging players, however, and featured trumpeter Roy Eldridge during an extended 1936 engagement at Chicago's Grand Terrace club. They had a hit in Christopher Columbus, but after three years he had to disband again in 1939. Henderson went to work for Benny Goodman as a staff arranger, an occupation that had consumed much of his creative energy for the previous several years.
Thus the ensemble sound heard on Goodman's classic recordings just before the outbreak of World War II was largely Henderson's creation. Henderson gained a measure of financial security from his time with Goodman, but soon gravitated back to the bandstand. During the mid ‘40’s, he led a new band of his own, and after the war, continued his work for Goodman in ’47. He served as an accompanist once again for Ethel Waters, (1948-49) who launched a revival tour. As the large swing bands proved less and less financially viable in the years after the war, Henderson adapted by forming a sextet that appeared at New York's Café Society club.
Partly paralyzed by a stroke in 1950, Henderson died in New York on December 28, 1952. Eclipsed by the giants of swing who came after him, Henderson for a time was insufficiently appreciated for his contributions. Reissue compilations featuring his work helped resuscitate his reputation, but what really did the job was the rise of serious historical studies of jazz in the late twentieth century; musicologists traced the careers of jazz musicians and found that the paths of many of them intersected with Henderson's career.
Source: James Nadal