javascript" src="static/js/analytics.js"> Loren Schoenberg
Home BiographyPhotos Recordings Writings Reviews The Jazz Museum in Harlem Email

Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Fletcher Henderson

There is no doubt that Fletcher Henderson deserves his position as a significant mover in jazz's development; however, the reason for his eminence has been largely misunderstood. Whenever the evolution of the big band is discussed, Henderson is proffered as one of the seminal arrangers. The truth of the matter is that the breakthroughs that his orchestra made in the mid-'20s were the result of saxophonist/composer/arranger Don Redman's adaption of Louis Armstrong's conception, and the leaps Benny Carter and brother Horace Henderson made from there. Fletcher's real talents were first and foremost as a uncanny spotter of talent,and much later as an arranger. But to place these events in context, let's back up and see how these two men came to join and transform the Henderson aggregation.

W.C. Handy and his partner Harry Pace had enjoyed a great success with their publishing company, and after moving from Memphis to New York in 1918, expanded and hired many local young musicians to serve the firm in various capacities. One of them was Fletcher Henderson, and when Pace went out on his own in 1921, the soft-spoken and reserved young Georgian became a major player in the new company, called Black Swan, named after the legendary singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1876). (Much of what is known about Henderson comes from the exemplary bio-discography HENDERSONIA, written by Walter C. Allen).

Don Redman arrived in New York during the first few months of 1923 with a band led by Billy Paige. In those days, it was quite normal for saxophonists to play the other members of the reed family, but Redman (who had graduated from Storer College in Virginia at the age of 20) exceeded expectations by adding trumpet and oboe to his already burgeoning list of doubles. His reputation quickly spread, and he found himself in demand as a free-lance sideman (a few years later he would even work and record with an embryonic Ellington ensemble.) Henderson had already established himself as a pianist and contractor of recording sessions (including backup bands for Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters) , and he began hiring Redman for various projects. It was also during this period that the young Coleman Hawkins, recently of singer Mamie Smith's band, began working with the Henderson clique, and his rapid maturation (like Redman, caused largely by their proximity to Armstrong in the Henderson aggregation) would play a large part in establishing Henderson's legacy.

Benny Carter was born and raised in New York, and by 1925 at the age of 18 was making a good living, living on Harlem's Strivers Row. Gifted on all members of the reed familty (in addition to thr trumpet, piano and trombone), he establsihed himself early on as an exemplary alto saxophonist and composer/arranger. Don Redman's father died just before the Henderson band's much awaited New York battle-of-the-bands with Jean's Goldkette's crew, which featured Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. Carter came in as a substitute on that auspicious occasion, and this helped immeasureably in cementing his reputation. He also filled in with the embrynic Ellington band the same year. After Redman's return, Carter began arranging for Henderson, and developed by leaps and bounds over the next few years. By 1930, he was one of the very best and innovative writers in the jazz world.

As Doug Ramsey has noted, the success of their various recording projects led to an engagement at the Roseland Ballroom, and this in turn to the hiring of the then-unknown (outside of New Orleans and Chicago) cornetist Louis Armstrong. Duke Ellington summed up the significance of that event with characteristic acuity: "...nobody had ever heard anything like it and his impact cannot be put in words".

Throughout the 1920s and early '30s, Henderson's band remained among the top bands, and through their recordings, became an international sensation. One can only imagine what commercial success they may have enjoyed if they had the kind of management that Ellington enjoyed, but that was not to be. Nonetheless, their recordings have created one of the great legacies of jazz, and many of their best are included in this essential collection.

Doug Ramsey's notes cover the depth and breadth of Henderson's career admirably. The two editions of the band represented in this collection (1931 and '34) was comprised of many great musicians. In the first crew were icons such as Coleman Hawkins and John Kirby, and some who remain obscure, but whose reputations were well-established at the time - Claude Jones and Bobby Stark, for example. Stark was an individual trumpet stylist who made his mark with the Chick Webb band after several years with Henderson. He played with a stabbing, sharp edge that contrasted well with the more round-toned and ironic style of cornetist Rex Stewart. Stewart eventually became a mainstay of the Ellington band, as did reedman Russell Procope. Saxophonist, composer and arranger Edgar Sampson, like Stark, eventually migrated to Chick Webb's band, and contributed many of the era's most well-known tunes, including "Stompin' At The Savoy" and "Don't Be That Way". Benny Morton was one of the most original and inventive of trombonist Jimmy Harrison's disciples, and he is heard to great advantage on the 1931 sides. Both Morton and his section mate Claude Jones (not quite the improviser Morton was but an individual none the less) were virtuosi at a time when it was still not at all unusual to hear the trombone played clumsily. The extremes of improvisational ability in the band were represented by lead trumpeter Russell Smith, whose steely perfection and lack of swing both pleased and vexed the band's fans, and by Coleman Hawkins, at the time the undisputed king of the tenor saxophone. Every note Hawkins played on Henderson records (he was in the band from 1923-34) was immediately dissected and copied by his legion of followers. Indeed, some also became fodder for the revolutionary Lester Young (one of many unconventional talents Henderson gave a shot to) , who replaced Hawkins in the band, but had left on far from good terms by the time the band got into the studio and recorded the 1934 sides included herein.

Guitarist Clarence Holiday is best remembered today as Billie's putative father, but was a well-respected rhythm man in his day. John Kirby had been a superlative tubist, and began to alternate it with the string bass just around the time of these 1931 recordings. He later gained much renown with his Sextet, known as the "Biggest Small Band in the Land", which was a superlative ensemble. Drummer Walter Johnson was known for his effortless swing, and his ability to rock the band without ever breaking a sweat. In many ways, his playing presaged the wind-blown efforts of Jo Jones with the Count Basie band just a few years later.

The depression hit the Henderson crew hard, and the 1934 recordings were made after a particularly hard season or two. Indeed, they are the last great sides this historic band were to make. What one would have thought might have precipitated a decline in their output - the recent emigration of Coleman Hawkins to England - spurred the men to work even harder than before. Listen to how effortlessly the band navigates Fletcher's six-sharps arrangement of Memphis Blues. They were aided most significantly by trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, who had been the sparkplug of the legendary Luis Russell band before joining Henderson in 1933. His off-the-wall, zen-like solos remain challenging today. Henderson also featured another trumpeter who played off Allen well - Irving "Mouse" Randolph, who played in many great bands, but remains obscure. The band was so accustomed to Hawker's Hawkins' tone that the more sotto voce playing of Lester Young came as too much of a shock. Tenor man Ben Webster stepped in the breach, and began to find his own voice in the Hawkins tradition - one that became all his own when he joined the Ellington band at the end of the decade. No lead-alto man had a higher standing throughout the big band era than Hilton Jefferson, who also was an idiosyncratic soloist, with his own take on Benny Carter's innovations - hear his chorus on "Wrappin' It Up". Louis Armstrong has brought his friend from King Oliver's band, Buster Bailey, into the Henderson aggregation in 1924, and the clarinetist's piping tone and technique are well featured throughout. The trombones featured Claude Jones, and a firebrand from Chicago, Frederic "Keg" Johnson, the brother of the arranger and tenor sax man Albert "Budd" Johnson. Both men had created a stir with their playing on Louis Armstrong's recordings for Victor the previous year, and Keg's ambitious if sometime over-enthusiatic playing gave the band a real charge.

Fletcher's brother Horace was the more creative arranger of the two, and also an excellent, modern pianist. Listen for his work throughout the 1934 recordings, as well as that of his rhythm-section mates - guitarist Lawrence Lucie, who is still active in New York as of 1996, and bassist Elmer James. Once again, drummer Walter Johnson is more felt than heard, an admirable illusion that many drummer today would be smart to consider!

There are few stories in jazz more full of hills and valleys than that of Fletcher Henderson, and in a field with its share of pretenders to historical significance, it's quite moving to reflect on the still largely misperceived contributions of this true pioneer.

SOLOS

Crazy About My Baby - Stark, Jones, Hawkins, Procope
Sugar Foot Stomp - Jones, Stark, Procope, Morton, Hawkins
Just Blues - Henderson, Jones/Stark, Stewart, Hawkins, Stewart/Hawkins, Morton, Stark
Singin' The Blues - Stewart, Procope
Low Down on the Bayou - Stewart, Jones, Morton
The House of David Blues - Hawkins, Stark, Sampson (violin), Morton
Radio Rhythm - Morton, Procope, Jones, Stark, Jones
You Rascal You - Hawkins
Limehouse Blues - Allen, Bailey, Johnson, Webster
Shanghai Shuffle - Bailey, Randolph, Jefferson
Big John's Special - Randolph, Jefferson, Randolph, Horace Henderson, Allen/Randolph
Happy as the Day is Long - Johnson ,Webster, Allen, Jefferson
Tidal Wave - Webster, Fletcher Henderson, Allen, Jefferson, Bailey
Down South Camp Meetin' - Allen
Wrappin' It Up - Jefferson, Allen, Bailey
Memphis Blues - Webster, Johnson, Jefferson, Randolph
Wild Party - Bailey, Johnson, Jefferson, Johnson, Webster, Allen, Bailey
Rug Cutter's Swing - Allen, Bailey, Jones, Jefferson, Jones, Webster, Johnson, Webster, Allen
Hotter Than Hell - Jones, Bailey, Allen, Webster
Liza - Randolph, Horace Henderson, Benny Carter, Randolph, Johnson, Jefferson, Johnson

 

.