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.