Born James Fletcher Henderson, December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, GA; wife's name, Leora. Education: Attended Atlanta University, 1916-20.
Fletcher Henderson, a figure whose place in music history continues to arouse debate and critical discussion, occupied a unique position in the development of jazz. A classically trained pianist, he helped bridge the world of the formal written arrangement with the African-American art of improvisation, creating a new orchestral style in jazz known as "swing." The dominant exponent of the New York, or "eastcoast," style, Henderson launched his career as part of the society orchestra and dance band craze of the 1920s and emerged, by the 1930s, as the leader of a model jazz ensemble.
Born on December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, Georgia, James Fletcher Henderson was the son of a middle-class school principal and a music teacher who demanded that their three children receive a formal musical education. Henderson began to study piano at age six; he was often locked in a room and forced to practice. After seven years of classical instruction he developed a proficient sense of pitch and an ability to sight read music. As Richard Hadlock wrote in Jazz Masters of the 20s, "Fletcher did well by his demanding father, performing in small classical recitals and avoiding the 'undesirable' influence of the blues."
Viewed as part of a well-rounded education, Henderson's musical training did not immediately inspire a career in the arts. In 1916 he attended Atlanta University to study mathematics and chemistry. Occasionally taking a job in music, he devoted most of his time to science and sports, particularly baseball. It was in reference to his batting average and his singular habit of smacking his lips that Henderson's university colleagues gave him the nickname "Smack."
In 1920 Henderson, intent on further pursuing his education and finding work in science, arrived in New York City. He was soon confronted, however, by the lack of job opportunities for black chemists. He then began work as a pianist with the Pace & Handy publishing house, demonstrating and promoting songs. Because music publisher W. C. Handy, often called the Father of the Blues, emphasized musically correct scores and sheet music, rather than traditional interpretations of the blues, Henderson's musical reading skills were held in high regard at the company.
In 1921 Handy's partner Harry Pace left the firm and founded Black Swan Records, a black-owned company boasting such distinguished directors as educator and writer W. E. B. Du Bois and New York real estate giant John E. Nail. Because of Pace's disinterest in blues and other non-classical forms, he employed Henderson--a respected college graduate and formally trained musician--to become the company's musical director. At Black Swan Henderson led small bands, organized recording sessions, and played piano for numerous vaudeville-style blues singers. Clarinetist/saxophonist Garvin Bushell, in his memoir Jazz from the Beginning, recalled how "Fletcher was in charge of the recording dates. He 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)."
Since Henderson's upbringing and musical training had not brought him in direct contact with the blues, his musicianship was received with little enthusiasm by singers like Ethel Waters, who, in her first meeting with the erudite pianist, found him priggish and without real knowledge of, or feeling for, blues music. As a remedy, Waters insisted Henderson listen to James P. Johnson piano rolls.
In the studio Henderson and his core of musical sidemen were extemporaneously developing a new style, incorporating the looseness and improvisation of the blues with standard European musical forms. Though this style did not have the distinctively loping and relaxed feel of the New Orleans or Chicago styles, it clearly contributed to the melding of African-American and European musical traditions. "Fletcher Henderson's reputation for over-orchestrated jazz and blues," wrote Ted Vincent in Living Blues, "has to be seen in light of the understandable attempt to display structure ... as can be seen in the complex introductions and breaks in the classic blues that was the product of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Rosa Henderson, Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, and the other recorded singers of the '20s."
By mid-1923 Henderson was one of the most in-demand session men in New York, recording for the Black Swan, Columbia, Paramount, and Edison labels. It was around that time that he assembled an eight-piece group, which landed a job at the Club Alabam, a cellar club on West 44th Street and Broadway. He was reluctant to lead the band, but the ensemble urged him on. As bandmember Don Redman recalled in Jazz Panorama, "We decided to make Fletcher the leader because he was a college graduate and presented a nice appearance." Since the band sought work in high-paying white clubs, Henderson's sophisticated appearance and musical knowledge was vital to its commercial success. "Smack was a man of imposing stature," wrote trumpeter Rex Stewart in Jazz Masters of the 1930s, "about six feet two or so. His complexion was that of an octoroon, and in his youth he could be mistaken for Italian.... He could be frivolous or serious, according to mood. However, even in his zany moments, there would be overtones of gentility. His greatness also lay in his impeccable selection of sidemen."
Henderson's band included banjoist Charlie Dixon, drummer Kaiser Marshall, tuba player Ralph Escudero, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and trumpeters Elmer Chambers and Joe Smith. But it was his arranger, saxophonist Don Redman, who proved to be his most vital asset. Reared as a musical prodigy, Redman was largely responsible for the modern character and development of the Henderson band. As Lewis Porter wrote in Jazz from its Origins, Redman "learned to write passage-work in the style of jazz solos. He left space for jazz solos, and he began opposing the band's sections, reeds against brass, in a way that would become cliche of the era."
While on tour with Ethel Waters in 1921, Henderson heard a young New Orleans trumpet player named Louis Armstrong. In 1924 Armstrong joined Henderson as third chair in the band's new three-man trumpet section. Armstrong's fourteen-month stay had a profound impact on the band--his horn stimulating the stylistic sensibility of his bandmates and inspiring Redman to make additional solo space in his arrangements. At the same time, the band helped hone Armstrong's reading skills. "The band gained a lot from Louis, and he learned a lot from us," explained Henderson in Record Changer. "He influenced the band greatly, by making the men really swing ... with that New Orleans style of his." An excellent example of Armstrong's sway was captured on the band's 1925 recording "Sugar Foot Stomp." A reworking of King Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues," the arrangement, as Dan Morganstern observed in the liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of an Artist, "is smoothed out to an Armstrongian 4/4 feel; the sections phrase much more smoothly," with a fitting solo in tribute to Armstrong's ex-leader, King Oliver.
With the departure of Armstrong in 1925, Henderson continued on the path of commercial success. Since establishing residency at the Roseland Ballroom on Broadway in 1924, the Henderson band had secured a stable economic base. The band's live radio broadcasts from Roseland and seasonal eastern tours brought it nationwide fame. "All the musicians hung around front of our bandstand at the Roseland," recalled Stewart in Jazz Masters of the 30s, "eager to hear (and borrow) from Smack."
But Henderson's economic and artistic success proved short-lived. The first setback came with Redman's departure in 1927. The following year, a car accident in Kentucky left Henderson with a broken collar bone and facial lacerations. During his recovery, he fell into a dark depression. Henderson's wife, Leora, recalled in Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, "Fletcher was never the same after he had that automobile accident.... He never did have much business qualities anyhow, but after the accident he had even less." The constant changing of sidemen and the inability to find an arranger of Redman's caliber resulted in a period of artistic lull for the Henderson band.
Though the subsequent addition of drummer Walter Johnson and tuba-player John Kirby, along with the arranging contributions of saxophonist Benny Carter, contributed to artistic resurgence in 1930, the band continued to struggle financially. The great bandleader and composer Duke Ellington observed, as quoted in Hear Me Talkin to Ya, "Smack's band was beginning to find the going a little tough around '32 and '33. Work was scarce, but the band was so fine, and the guys so attached to it, that nobody had the heart to quit." Traveling by "classy car caravan" across the country, the Henderson band continued to play theaters coast to coast.
Ultimately, though, the lack of steady employment led to the break-up of Henderson's famed orchestra in 1935. "How utterly frustrating it must have been," wrote Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era, "at [a time of such development], in such pieces as 'Down Home Camp Meetin' and "Wrappin' It Up," that his orchestra's fortunes had sunk so low it was forced to disband!"
In 1936 Henderson took a job as staff arranger for swing clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman. Within a few months he'd formed a new band featuring soloists like trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxophonist Chu Berry, and drummer Sid Catlett. Also that year, Henderson established his band at the Grand Terrace in Chicago and landed his first hit with Berry's "Christopher Columbus," arranged by the bandleader's brother Horace Henderson. But as Schuller noted in The Swing Era, "The Henderson band was closing in on itself, cutting off its own vital circulation. The band's final demise-- except for five more sides cut in 1941 by a temporarily reorganized band--was sad indeed, when one considers that the band could hardly manage even a well-known vintage piece like 'Moten Stomp.'"
Following stints at Chicago's Rhumboogie Room and Club Delisa in 1945, Henderson worked periodically with Goodman and toured as an accompanist for Ethel Waters. In 1950 he led a sextet at Cafe Society in New York. That same year, while a member of the Jazz Train show at New York's Bop City, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Henderson died on December 28, 1952, after collapsing in the street. His wife somberly recalled in Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, "He was really trying to make a comeback--working days and nights on arrangements and rehearsals. But all of it came to nothing."
Despite his many years of struggle and lack of long-term commercial success, Henderson has emerged as a man, who, in the second and third decades of the 20th century, stood at the crossroads of modern musical development. His contribution to the art form," wrote Max Harrison in The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz, "was not only ultimately an orchestral one; rather, he and his [sidemen] showed that improvisation could flourish within the context of written scores, that spontaneity and careful preparation were not incompatible." In a recent Down Beat review of Henderson's music, critic Kevin Whitehead measured the enduring impact of Henderson's contribution to American musical history by boldly expressing: "If you consider yourself culturally literate you better know your Fletcher Henderson."
by John Cohassey
Fletcher Henderson's Career
Began studying piano at age six; pianist with the Pace & Handy publishing company, New York City, 1920; musical director, Black Swan Recording Company, 1921-23; became leader of eight-piece orchestra, 1924; disbanded orchestra, 1935; arranger for Benny Goodman, 1936; led band at Grand Terrace, Chicago, 1936; rejoined Goodman, 1939; toured with own band, 1944; appeared at Rhumboogie Room and Club Delisa, Chicago, 1945; toured as pianist with Ethel Waters, 1949; led band at Bop City and Cafe Society, New York City, 1950.
- Selective Works
- Rarest Fletcher, Vol. 1, 1923-24, MCA.
- Fletcher Henderson: 1924/1927, Zeta Records.
- First Impressions (1924-1931), MCA.
- Fletcher Henderson and the Dixie Stompers, 1925-1928, DRG.
- Jazz Age: 1925-1928, ABC.
- Fletcher Henderson: 1927, Classics.
- Fletcher Henderson: 1927-1931, Classics.
- Swing 1929-1937, ABC.
- Swingin' the Thing, 1931-34, MCA.
- Hocus Pocus, Classic Big Band Jazz, RCA/Bluebird.
- Tidal Wave, Decca.
- Under a Harlem Moon, ASV.
- A Study in Frustration: The Fletcher Henderson Story, Thesaurus of Classic Jazz, Columbia/Legacy, 1994.
- Bushell, Garvin, as told to Mark Tucker, Jazz from the Beginning, University of Michigan Press, 1990.
- Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the 20s, Da Capo, New York.
- Hear Me Talkin' to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Dover Publications, 1955.
- Hennessey, Thomas J., From Jazz to Swing: African-American Musicians and Their Music 1890-1935, Wayne State University Press, 1994.
- Jazz Panorama: From the Pages of the Jazz Review, edited by Matin T. Williams, Da Capo, 1979.
- The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz, with Spirituals and Ragtime, edited by Paul Oliver and Max Harrison, Norton, 1980.
- Porter, Lewis, and Michael Ullman, with Edward Hazell, Jazz from its Origins to the Present, Prentice Hall, 1993.
- Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Stewart, Rex, Jazz Masters of the 30s, Da Capo, 1972.
- Periodicals Down Beat, January 1995.
- Living Blues, May/June, 1989.
- Record Changer, July/August 1950.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Dan Morganstern to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934, Columbia/Legacy.