Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. (December 18, 1898 – December 29, 1952), called “Smack” for his elegance, was a major African American pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, who played a decisive role in the development of big band jazz and Swing music.
Henderson’s music marks the transition from New Orleans jazz, with its spontaneous use of improvisation in a small band setting, and the big band setting of the swing era, with its more formal orchestral structure and arrangements. With Henderson’s music, that step was performed without any loss of the qualities that characterized the early form of jazz. The music remained creative and full of vitality while acquiring additional sophistication. Henderson was also one of the first and most successful cases of cooperation between black and white artists, thus helping close the gap that had existed between the two worlds and producing unexpected new results.
Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia. His father was a principal and his mother taught piano. He attended Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated in 1920. After graduation, he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University for a master's degree in chemistry. However, he found his job prospects in chemistry to be very restricted due to his race, and turned to music for a living.
He worked for the Pace-Handy music company as a song demonstrator. He also worked at Black Swan Records as music director and pianist. He led the band accompanying singer Ethel Waters. His success in music made him forget about a career in chemistry.
In 1921 he formed his own band, which was resident first at the Club Alabam then at the Roseland, and quickly became known as the best "colored" band in New York. For a time his ideas of arrangement were heavily influenced by those of Paul Whiteman, but when Louis Armstrong joined his orchestra in 1924, Henderson realized there could be a much richer potential for jazz band orchestration. Henderson's band also boasted the formidable arranging talents of Don Redman.
During more than a decade, in addition to Armstrong, the band featured a nearly unparalleled who’s who of jazz talents. Prominent free jazz band leader Sun Ra also worked as an arranger in the 1940s during Henderson's engagement at the Club De Lisa in Chicago. Sun Ra himself said that on first hearing Henderson's orchestra as a teenager he assumed that they must be angels because no human could produce such beautiful music.
Beginning in the early 1930s, Fletcher's piano-playing younger brother, Horace Henderson, contributed to the arrangements of the band. He later led a band of his own that also received critical acclaim.
Although the band was very popular, Henderson had little success managing the band. He was well regarded as an arranger and his arrangements became influential. In addition to his own band he arranged for several other bands, including those of Teddy Hill, Isham Jones, and most famously, Benny Goodman.
In 1934 Goodman's Orchestra was selected as a house band for the "Let's Dance" radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some jazz charts from Henderson. Many of Goodman's hits from the Swing Era were arranged by Henderson for his own band in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
In 1939 he disbanded his own band and joined Goodman's, first as both pianist and arranger and then working full time as arranger. He reformed bands of his own several times in the 1940s, toured with Ethel Waters again in 1948–1949. Henderson suffered a stroke in 1950 resulting in partial paralysis that ended his days as a pianist. He died in New York City in 1952.
The first two prominent large orchestras of the 1920s were the white bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. Both featured some extraordinary jazz musicians at times, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. In Bill Challis, Whiteman also had an extremely gifted arranger. This resulted in some excellent hot jazz at times, but mostly these bands were performing popular music and a form of cross-over between classical music and jazz, such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Not surprisingly, when Henderson put together his own band in New York in 1922, his music initially developed along the same lines. His first recordings are professional but unremarkable and sound dated. Even before Louis Armstrong’s arrival in 1924, though, some occasional sparks announced a brighter future. But it was unquestionably Armstrong’s 13-month tenure that turned the band around. Henderson was able to steer his orchestra into the uncharted waters of hot big band jazz, combining Armstrong’s capacity as a jazz soloist with his own expertise at leading a large ensemble. Armstrong was not as musically literate as the other band members, but he was an accomplished and revolutionary soloist on cornet. Hearing him play daring solos in the dance music environment of the early Henderson years is an amazing experience.
Henderson’s greatness shows after Armstrong’s departure. Instead of losing its momentum after Armstrong’s departure, Henderson’s band became home to one outstanding soloist after another, some of whom had already played in Henderson’s band and were transformed through the experience of playing with Armstrong, and many of whom joined the orchestra in the years that followed. Thus, big band jazz was really born.
In the late 1920s, Henderson’s only real competition was Duke Ellington. Ellington was also the only jazz band to have had an equal number of jazz greats among his musicians over the years. Even The Count Basie Orchestra did not feature so many prominent jazz musicians.
After Armstrong, a partial list of jazz greats that played with Henderson includes Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, Rex Stewart, Henry Red Allen, Bobby Stark, Roy Eldridge, and Emmett Berry on trumpet or cornet; Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Leon Chu Berry, and Lester Young on tenor saxophone; Don Redman, Benny Carter and Hilton Jefferson on alto saxophone; Kaiser Marchall, Walter Johnson and Big Sid Catlett on drums; John Kirby and Israel Crosby on bass; Buster Bailey and Russell Procope on clarinet; Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green, Claude Jones, J. C. Higginbotham, Dickie Wells, Benny Morton, Keg Johnson, Sandy Williams, and Ed Cuffee on trombone; and Fletcher’s brother Horace Henderson on piano, with occasional guests appearances by Fats Waller on piano and organ, and James P. Johnson on piano.
Some, like Hawkins, stayed on for years, but many stayed on for a while and then moved on. Unlike Duke Ellington, whose strong musical personality commanded many lasting loyalties (key players who came to be known as the “Ellingtonians”), Henderson was able to create and maintain and evolving style of his own by using an ever-changing orchestral composition.
By the mid to late 1920s, Henderson had fully created his sound – the first big band to play hot music. A major element in this achievement was the presence of Don Redman, himself the first great arranger of jazz. The ensembles were power-driven, and so were the numerous solos by the band’s star players. The orchestral parts and the solos were harmoniously alternating and fit seamlessly. The clarinet trio became a Henderson trademark, contrasting with the deep, pounding sound of the brass, emphasized by the brass bass (tuba) inherited from the marching bands. Among the soloists, was a careful contrast was also created, e.g., between Tommy Ladnier’s conquering sound on trumpet and Joe Smith’s lyrical and poetic sound on the same instrument. The end result was sophisticated yet spontaneous and lively. It also had a very strong swing. And, sometimes, the music played even echoed the sounds of European folk dances. Altogether, it was a creative synthesis that produced some of jazz’s best recordings.
The year 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression, was a turning point for many bands. For Henderson, there were two additional unfortunate events. In that year, half of his band left over a controversy about management. Around that same time, Henderson himself was involved in a car accident. While he did not sustain significant injuries, his morale was permanently affected according to his wife’s testimony. Already not a great businessman, Henderson seemed to gradually lose interest in things, especially commercial success, while still producing great music.
With this in mind, one can only be surprised at what his orchestra was still able to do. New jazz greats kept flowing into the band until the very end. After Redman’s departure, Benny Carter, another jazz genius and great arranger, briefly joined the band and produced new arrangements. Then, Henderson himself discovered his immense talent as an arranger and created the definitive Henderson sound that would usher in the swing era. By then, the brass bass had been replaced by John Kirby’s string bass, a key element in the formation of a lighter, yet equally powerful and swinging sound. It was dance music in the best sense of the word—music that moved the body as well as the mind. The occasional presence of a commercial singer (a necessity for survival) was a minor annoyance—one that other bands, including Ellington, were similarly unable to avoid.
Lack of commercial success eventually led Henderson to disband for the first time, creating a gap in 1935. In 1936 a new band was assembled and immediately scored a major hit with “Christopher Columbus.” Leon Chu Berry had successfully replaced Coleman Hawkins on tenor. Big Sid Catlett on drums and a flamboyant Roy Eldridge on trumpet were two further additions. In spite of Duke Ellington’s advice, Henderson failed to take advantage of his new success and soon the band slumped again until it was dissolved one more time in the late 1930s.
Henderson would try to put together a band again several times, but with no success. By then the swing era was in full boom, but he was not longer part of it, at least not as a band leader.
Having established contact with Benny Goodman, whose all-white band emerged in the mid-thirties, making him the “king of swing,” Henderson started a lasting cooperation, providing arrangements for the band and later playing piano in Goodman’s small combos.
It has often been said that Goodman played Henderson’s arrangements better than Henderson had done with his own band, though this is probably not quite fair. Goodman played them with surgical precision, creating his own style in the process. Henderson’s arrangements were likely a major factor in Goodman’s triumph. In this way, Henderson survived his own success.
As a pianist, Henderson was a minor figure. Nevertheless, his occasional solos reveal a sure musical instinct, allowing him to express much with limited means. Examples are “Rose Room” with Benny Goodman, and “Nagasaki” and “Stealing Apples” with his own band.
What follows is a partial list of Fletcher Henderson’s best recordings:
All links retrieved April 13, 2017.
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