Luther Henderson & His Orchestra Biography

Luther Lincoln Henderson, 1919, Kansas City, Missouri, USA, d. 29 July 2003, New York City, New York, USA. When he was aged four, Henderson’s family moved to New York City where they became neighbours of Duke Ellington, with whose son, Mercer Ellington, Henderson attended school. A graduate of Evander Childs High School in New York City, Henderson majored in mathematics at the College of the City of New York, graduating in 1938. His chief interest, though, was music, and he studied for a degree in music and also attended the Juilliard School of Music in the early 40s. After graduation from Juilliard, he was drafted into the US Navy where he became an arranger with the Navy jazz band, which included in its ranks Clark Terry.

After military service, Henderson returned to his studies, this time at New York University’s Graduate School of Music from which he graduated in 1947. An early professional task was orchestrating Tropical Review, in 1943, and another 40s show was Beggar’s Holiday. This, the first and for all practical purposes only Broadway musical for which Ellington wrote the music, was in 1946 and marked the beginning of a sporadic but long-lasting association with the composer, something of which Henderson was justifiably proud. His work with Ellington expanded when the composer, in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, moved onto the longer works that would mark his oeuvre from the late 40s and on through the 50s and beyond. In particular, Henderson brought his classical training to bear on symphonic orchestrations for the Ellington/Strayhorn compositions. Among his work for Ellington in this capacity was A Drum Is A Woman.

Meanwhile, he had become pianist and musical director for Lena Horne but most of his work was in the musical theatre, chiefly in New York City, both on and off-Broadway. Among the shows for which he was musical director or music arranger or orchestrator, were Funny Girl, Flower Drum Song (for which he was dance arranger in 1958), Do Re Mi, the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette, Ain’t Misbehavin’ (for which he was also the original pianist when the show opened in 1978), Hallelujah Baby, and Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music. He was also composer of The Crystal Tree and co-composer of Jelly’s Last Jam (the latter being Tony Award -nominated for Best Score in 1992). He was also dance arranger for Ellington’s Three Black Kings staged by the Dance Theatre of Harlem as Les Trois Rois Noirs. Other shows included The All Night Strut!, Jazzbo Brown, Play On! (for which his orchestrations were Tony-nominated), and, in 2002, Little Ham. He also worked on television, including a special performance of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (for which he served as musical director, orchestrator, arranger, and pianist, and for which he received an Emmy Award nomination). Other television shows on which he worked included The Helen Morgan Story, The Bachelor, and The V.D. Blues, as well as specials with Polly Bergen, Victor Borge, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin and Andy Williams. On the big screen, Henderson composed and orchestrated the music for Recess (1967) and The Slams (1973).

Henderson spent time in Canada, working to very good effect with the Canadian Brass for some 20 years among their numerous albums together being the well-received I Got A Right To Sing The Blues, with Eileen Farrell, and the group’s Ellington tribute, Take the ‘A’ Train, which was Grammy-nominated in 2000. In 1999, the UK’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, recorded Henderson’s orchestrations of Ellington’s music, under the title Classic Ellington. This was followed by a Carnegie Hall concert when this music was played by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Rattle, with soloists including his old comrade Terry, Dianne Reeves and Regina Carter. In 2003, shortly before his death, Henderson learned that he had been chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts for a Jazz Masters fellowship.

Arrangements by Henderson have been used by artists as diverse as those named as well as André Kostelanetz (who recorded The Music Of Richard Rodgers, Theatre Party, Flower Drum Song and Young At Heart, all for Columbia Records), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (recording A Digital Trip Down Broadway and A Broadway Extravaganza for MCA Records), Mandy Patinkin, Teresa Brewer, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Tammy Grimes, Carmen McRae and Anita Ellis. Henderson’s song ‘Ten Good Years’, with lyrics by Martin Charnin, was recorded by Nancy Wilson. Among Henderson’s prolific gifts was his ability to deconstruct the music of others and then rebuild it in a manner suited to the form demanded by the musical theatre.

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

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