Fletcher Henderson - Biography

Pianist and arranger Fletcher Henderson was one of the most commercially successful African-American musician of the Twenties. A key figure in the development of big band jazz, he led an orchestra with a unique sound that led directly to the “swing” era. Working with arranger Don Redman, he created the basic pattern of an orchestral language that featured the interplay of brass and reed sections, frequently in a call and response format characteristic of earlier African-based music. In jazz writer Brian Priestley’s words, this structure “proved so flexible that it was the basis of all the most popular music until the end of World War II.” Henderson was also an impressive talent scout, recruiting such major figures as Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Art Blakey, and Sun Ra for his orchestras. Yet he was not an aggressive promoter of his own work, so his innovations are sometimes overlooked. As trumpeter Rex Stewart said of him, Henderson “was undoubtedly reincarnated from another age or planet. He was too gentle for his time.”

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson was born in the small town of Cuthbert, Georgia, on December 18, 1897. He was the oldest of three children, all of whom were encouraged in music by their parents, who were both teachers. (His brother Horace became a pianist, arranger and bandleader whose career was closely aligned with his, as they arranged and played for one another’s groups.) Young Fletcher began seven years of piano study in the classics at the age of six, developing an educated ear and strong sight-reading skills.

In the middle class culture of the time, both white and African-American, a grounding in music was part of a well-rounded education. Henderson had no intention of a career in the arts when he enrolled at Atlanta University in 1916 to study mathematics and chemistry. He graduated in 1920 and moved to New York City, where he found a job as an assistant in a chemical lab. His musical background also got him work as a song demonstrator for the premier black-owned publishing house, the Pace and Handy Company. Founding partner W. C. Handy insisted on publishing musically correct scores and sheet music, so Henderson's skill in reading was held in high regard at the firm.

There were few opportunities for black chemists in the Twenties. Henderson had to rely more and more on his musical abilities to sustain himself. When Handy and Harry Pace decided to split up their company in January 1921, Henderson joined Pace in his new organization, becoming the house pianist for Black Swan Records. Henderson not only played piano, but also organized the recording sessions and led the bands. In his memoirs, reedman Garvin Bushell recalled how Henderson “might pick the numbers in the office, present them to vocalists, then we'd have rehearsal and get it together. Often there were only two pieces of music, one for the piano and one for the trumpet (or violin).”

Henderson had had little or no contact with the blues up to this point, which bothered singers like Ethel Waters. After their first meeting, the singer suggested that Henderson listen to the piano rolls of James P. Johnson to get an education in the blues. He learned quickly, and blues numbers by Waters became Black Swan’s biggest sellers. By the fall of 1921, Henderson was joining Waters on the road. During one of their later tours, in April 1922 in New Orleans, Waters and her group made the first known jazz radio broadcast. During the same week, Henderson heard trumpeter Louis Armstrong for the first time. He unsuccessfully tried to entice Armstrong to join the Waters group and come North.

By the middle of 1923, Henderson was one of the most in-demand session men in town, usually backing blues performers, including Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. Henderson’s dozens of sessions for Columbia, Vocalion, Paramount, and other labels in this vein throughout the Twenties, made him and his sidemen some of the most recorded jazz musicians of the era. He also led a number of jazz sessions as leader, but his group existed only in the studio until he secured a regular gig at the Club Alabam beginning in January 1924. The first working group included saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and clarinetist, alto saxophonist, and arranger Don Redman, who later recalled that “We decided to make Fletcher the leader because he was a college graduate and presented a nice appearance.” The Alabam job lasted until a dispute with management in the middle of the year. The group moved over to the Roseland Ballroom, where it became the first black band to be featured as a resident attraction. From mid-1924 until the spring of 1930, the Henderson band spent about half its annual playing time at Roseland, and was often heard on the radio in the New York area.

In the fall of 1924, Louis Armstrong joined the Henderson group at last. He spent about a year with Henderson, honing his skills in the role of featured soloist backed by a large band. The Henderson band with Armstrong recorded frequently for Columbia, and the changes that Armstrong brought to the band, especially in his rhythmic sensibilities, can be studied in detail on gems like “Sugar Foot Stomp” and “Shanghai Shuffle.” Armstrong’s approach began to influence Redman’s charts for the band. By 1927, the group was one of the most talked-about attractions in jazz. Redman left to lead McKinney’s Cotton Pickers that summer, and Henderson himself began to write arrangements for the band.

Henderson was involved in an automobile accident in Kentucky in August 1928. Although his physical injuries were slight, there was a noticeable effect on his personality. "He never had much business qualities anyhow,” his wife said later, “but after that accident, he had even less." Reorganizing in the fall after the accident, he hired Benny Carter for the group. Carter was an acclaimed alto saxophonist stylist, who was also fluent on trumpet and other instruments. A major composer and arranger, he wrote many of the charts for the orchestra from 1929 to 1931. John Hammond, the influential fan, impresario, and recording supervisor, was of the opinion that the Henderson group he recorded for Vocalion and Columbia in 1932 and 1933 on tunes like “Yeah Man!” and “Queer Notions” was the best band that Henderson ever led, packed with talented soloists like trumpeters Rex Stewart and Henry “Red” Allen, trombonists Dickie Wells and Benny Morton, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins (nearing the end of his long tenure with the band), and with the gently swinging rhythm section of Fletcher or Horace Henderson at the piano, Bernard Addison on guitar, John Kirby on bass, and Walter Johnson on drums. Gunther Schuller, in his major study of The Swing Era, describes the band’s sound as “light, buoyant, airy, loose, and yet remarkably cohesive.”

By 1934, though, the band was unsettled. When Hawkins left the group that spring for Europe, things slid downhill. That fall in Detroit, after not being paid once too often, the entire orchestra resigned, leaving to go to rival bands like those of Cab Calloway and Lucky Millinder. At this low point, Hammond played a crucial role in both keeping Henderson afloat and changing the course of popular music, by connecting Henderson with the floundering Benny Goodman Orchestra. The alliance of Henderson’s arrangements and Goodman’s orchestra ushered in the age of swing, making jazz for the first time the popular music of the land. On the strength of charts like “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” Goodman was soon anointed by the press as the “King Of Swing,” in an early example of the commercial exploitation of black music by white musicians. As Schuller notes, “it is an ironic and sad truth that the very style which succeeded with Goodman had already existed and flourished for three or four years in precisely the same form...” Goodman used some of Henderson’s arrangements for his own band intact, including pieces that the Henderson orchestra had recorded. As far as the general public was concerned, though, Goodman and his band were stars.

Henderson went back on the road with a new orchestra of his own in 1935, and by the next year had built a stellar unit with strong soloists in trumpeter Roy Eldridge, clarinetist Buster Bailey, and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, plus the dynamic Sid Catlett on drums. This group had a hit with the March 1936 recording “Christopher Columbus (A Rhythm Cocktail).” The late Thirties was a trying time for big bands, and Henderson’s ongoing lackadaisical approach to the business side of things had its effect on his musicians. Soon his star soloists left the group. By June 1939, Henderson had had enough of the pressures that come with heading a large band, and he broke it up. He rejoined the Goodman organization as staff arranger, and briefly, as pianist. There were periodic attempts at leading an orchestra again, beginning in 1941, and he toured again with Ethel Waters in 1948 and 1949. He led a few engagements around New York in 1950. At the end of the year he was in residence at Café Society Downtown, with a small group featuring clarinetist Eddie Barefield and tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Henderson had his first stroke during the engagement. He was well enough to return to writing by the end of 1951, but suffered a second stroke in April 1952. A third stoke on December 29, 1952, proved fatal, and one of the architects of the swing era was gone. Although his personal hopes and dreams might not have been realized (a compilation of early sides was titled A Study in Frustration [1994 Columbia]), the big band language that Henderson pioneered, and his notion that improvisation and composition were compatible modes of expression, are still potent ideas in the jazz world of the 21st century.

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