100 Jazz Profiles
1987 - 1952
Pianist and Bandleader. Not only did Henderson lead the most popular African-American big band of the mid-1920s, a role later taken over by Duke Ellington, but he was one of the most influential figures in establishing the craft of the big band arranger. In his writing for his own band and in the work he commissioned from other writers such as Don Redman and Benny Carter, he established the standard methods of using reed and brass sections.
His own writing became the template for Benny Goodman's successful big band of the 1930s, which produced the most popular music of the swing era. Henderson grew up as a classical pianist, and qualified as a scientist, before moving to New York and becoming first a popular song demonstrator, and then an accompanist on dozens of blues records.
Henderson was not a natural blues player - he knew more about Haydn and Mozart - but he taught himself the craft, and went on from directing and arranging bands in the recording studio to leading his own group at the Roseland Ballroom. There he became nationally famous, and his band was quickly recognised as America's leading black big band.
His soloists included trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Rex Stewart, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Benny Carter, and trombonists Jimmy Harrison and Charlie Green. Later stars included Henry Red Allen, Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry. Although Henderson could be vague in person (accentuated by the effects of a car accident) his writing was tight and polished, and the best discs by his band are a perfect match of slick precision in performance with well-crafted arrangements.
His band broke up and re-formed several times in the 1930s, and at one point he left bandleading to join Goodman as staff arranger. But he returned to leadership for much of the 1940s until illness ended his career in 1950. His brother Horace Henderson was also an accomplished pianist, arranger and bandleader, who took an active part in working for Fletcher's organisation in the 1930s.
Rex Stewart: Boy Meets Horn (edited by Claire P Gordon) (Oxford, Bayou Press) 1991
Hocus Pocus (Bluebird ND 90413)
Suggested track: Sugar Foot Stomp
Fletcher Henderson at Red Hot Jazz
Recording list with sound files and other links.
on radio 3
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