Fletcher Henderson Biography

Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, 18 December 1897, Cuthbert, Georgia, USA, d. 28 December 1952, New York City, New York, USA. One of the most important figures in the development of big band music, in the early 30s Henderson set the standards by which early big band jazz was measured. He did this through a combination of selecting leading jazz players for his band and, together with Don Redman, creating a format for big band arrangements that was taken up by all but a handful of arrangers in the next 30 years. Yet, curiously enough, Henderson became a band leader almost by accident, and an arranger through force of circumstance, rather than by deliberate intent.

After gaining a degree in chemistry at Atlanta State University, he travelled to New York in 1920 to continue his studies. As a means of supporting himself he drifted into working as a song-plugger for the Pace-Handy Music Company. Then he became manager of Harry Pace’s Black Swan Record Company, playing piano on many of the company’s record sessions. He next put together a band with which to accompany Ethel Waters on tour. Soon he was leading a band at the Little Club near Broadway, a popular nightspot known by its frequenters as the ‘Club Alabam’. The band was really a loose-knit collection of like-minded musicians who elected Henderson as leader because, as Redman put it, ‘He made a nice appearance and was well-educated and we figured all that would help in furthering our success’. This was the start of Henderson’s ascendancy. Later that same year, 1924, he took his band into Roseland, one of New York’s most famous ballrooms. The contract was for four years, but Henderson’s connection with Roseland continued intermittently for 10 years.

In those days the route to success lay along the path charted by Paul Whiteman, offering the public a selection of tangos, waltzes and other popular dance tunes. Billed as ‘the coloured Paul Whiteman’, Henderson’s was barely recognizable as a jazz group, despite the presence of outstanding jazzmen such as Coleman Hawkins. The band’s musical policy underwent a marked change, however, with the arrival in its ranks of Louis Armstrong. He was there for about a year, leaving towards the end of 1925, but that brief stay forced Don Redman into completely revising the way he wrote his arrangements for the band. Redman’s charts simulated the polyphonic New Orleans style of ensemble playing, pitting one section against another, and giving full rein to the solo talents of the individual musicians.

By 1927 the band was the most talked-about in New York and, apart from Hawkins, included Tommy Ladnier, Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green and Buster Bailey. Henderson was ambitious for success, even though he was not an especially astute businessman and had a pleasant unaggressive manner. However, his circumstances were about to alter in a way no one could have forecast. In mid-summer 1927 Redman left to become musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. His departure meant that Henderson had to take up the bulk of the arranging duties for the band, a task he performed admirably. Unfortunately, in 1928 he was involved in a road accident and while his physical injuries were slight he underwent a change of personality. As his wife later said, ‘He never had much business qualities anyhow, but after that accident, he had even less’. The most obvious effect of the change was that all ambition deserted him, leaving just an easygoing, casual individual. In the brashly commercial world of early 30s big band music this was not the way for a band leader to achieve success. In 1929 Henderson’s lackadaisical attitude caused a mass walk-out by his star performers, but the following year he re-formed and tried again.

Despite the departure of Redman, Henderson had continued to write skilful arrangements, developing ideas for saxophone voicings which, given the fact that he mostly used only a three-piece section, were remarkably intricate. The 1931 Henderson band was an astonishing array of top-flight jazzmen. The trumpets included Rex Stewart and Bobby Stark, Benny Morton was in the trombone section while the saxophones were Hawkins, Russell Procope and Edgar Sampson, himself a leading big-band arranger. The remaining years of the decade saw Henderson leading star-studded bands. In 1934 he had Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Joe Thomas in the trumpet section, while the 1936 edition included Roy Eldridge, Omer Simeon, Chu Berry, Israel Crosby and ‘Big’ Sid Catlett. In addition to his arrangements being played by his own band, they were also providing the basis for the successes enjoyed by others, notably Benny Goodman. However, despite the quality of the charts and the stature of the men in his band, Henderson’s star was fast-waning. His indifference to commercial considerations rubbed off on his musicians and led in turn to disaffected and diminishing audiences. By 1939 Henderson had become tired of falling attendances, hassles with promoters, unrest in his own ranks and all the many pressures that came the way of big band leaders during the swing era. He folded his band and joined Goodman as staff arranger and pianist. During the 40s he continued to write for Goodman and others, and once in a while formed a band for special dates. Late in the decade he returned to his earlier role as accompanist to Ethel Waters. In 1950 he fell in the street, apparently as the result of a stroke. Partially incapacitated, he lived for a further year or so, dying on 28 December 1952.

Henderson was one of the most important figures in the development of big band music, although in abbreviated jazz history he is sometimes elevated to a degree that underplays the immense contributions made by others. Of those connected at one time or another with the Henderson band, Redman was an innovator, Sampson was a major contributor and a very talented composer and Horace Henderson, Fletcher’s younger brother, was busy writing in the same vein. In other bands, the work of Charlie Dixon and Benny Carter also advanced along similar lines. Later, there would be refinements on the work of Redman and Henderson by gifted musicians such as Sy Oliver, Quincy Jones, Buster Harding, Neal Hefti and others; but until major shifts of style occurred later, the course Henderson had established remained the most significant in big band music. Even today, many big bands - including even some avant gardists such as the Sun Ra Arkestra - still trace the paths charted by a man who became a band leader by chance, whose career was blighted by an accident, and whose death came in much the same way at a time when he was all but forgotten.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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