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Fletcher Henderson

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Hamilton, Jr.; Smack (1897-1952) Bandleader, arranger, and pianist

Audio sample Hotter Than 'Ell
Recorded September 25, 1934
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)

Fletcher Henderson
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Fletcher Henderson was the brother of Horace Henderson and led the most important of the pioneering big bands, which helped to set the pattern for most later big jazz bands playing arranged music.

Henderson was born into a middle-class black family and studied European art and music with his mother, a piano teacher. He grew up to be a good-looking, well-mannered youth, and (atypically for someone of his race at that time) went on to take a degree in chemistry and mathematics at Atlanta University. Despite his advantages of means and station, Henderson was almost painfully diffident. In 1920, he moved to New York, ostensibly to find a career as a chemist, but this was then nearly impossible for an African-American, and especially so for a young man of Henderson's passive temperament. He picked up work as a song demonstrator with the Pace-Handy Music Company, an early black publishing firm, and when Harry Pace founded Black Swan, the first black recording company, Henderson joined it as musical factotum. He began to put together groups to back the company's singers, and in this way drifted into a career as a bandleader. He occasionally obtained work for these little bands at clubs and dances, and probably in January 1924 began to perform in the Club Alabam on Broadway. The same year he was offered a position at the Roseland Ballroom, later to become the best-known dance hall in New York. (These clubs were restricted to white customers.) Henderson's band remained there for a decade, using Roseland as a springboard to national fame.
Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

At the outset, Henderson's group was an ordinary dance band, not a jazz band, though its music was inflected with the "raggy" rhythms that had been popular for some time. Northern blacks of the time had little first-hand experience of spirituals, work songs, and the blues, and only slowly came to grips with the new jazz that was emerging from the South. Henderson, although he had been brought up in Georgia, had been insulated from black folk forms by his middle-class parents who, like many blacks of their position, frowned on "low" music. Henderson had to learn to play jazz in his 20s, and never became more than an adequate jazz pianist.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Fletcher Henderson
NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Fletcher Henderson Jazz critic Stanley Crouch discusses Satchmo's move to New York from Chicago in 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson's band.

Henderson's band was no different from the thousands of dance bands that were springing up across the USA in response to the vogue for social dancing. But musicians everywhere were drawn to the new jazz music, and in 1924 Henderson brought Louis Armstrong, whom he had heard briefly in New Orleans three years earlier, into his band as a jazz specialist. Armstrong's style was rapidly maturing, and his playing entranced not only Henderson's men, but also other New York musicians with its propulsive swing and melodic invention. Although Armstrong was not the only jazz influence on New York musicians, he was the most important one, and Henderson's band members began to emulate his solo style.

At about the same time the band's music director, Don Redman, was working out what was to become the basic pattern of big-band arrangements for decades: the interplay of brass and reed sections, sometimes in call-and-response fashion, at other times with one section playing supporting riffs behind the other. Many solos were interspersed between the arranged passages. Redman and Henderson were not alone in developing this formula; the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was employing the technique in rudimentary form in 1920, but Redman and Henderson developed it fully. However, in 1924 and 1925, the band was still learning to play with a jazz feeling, and the recordings made then are notable mainly for solos by Armstrong; among these are Copenhagen, Go 'long Mule, Shanghai Shuffle, Sugar Foot Stomp, and a reworking of King Oliver's Dippermouth Blues. The last piece became the band's first hit, and pressings of it remained available for a decade.

Armstrong left Henderson's band in the fall of 1925, but the seed sown by him and others took root, and by 1926 the band was playing excellent jazz with first-rate soloists and an ability to make the arranged passages swing. From this time until the mid-1930s, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was one of the principal models for big jazz bands.

Until 1927, Redman wrote virtually all of the band's arrangements, and it is difficult to estimate Henderson's particular contribution to the development of the big-band format. However, in 1927, Redman left Henderson to become music director of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and Henderson was forced to take on much of the band's arranging (though he continued to buy arrangements from freelance musicians, and in 1930-31 his sideman Benny Carter supplied a number of important scores). He proved to have a remarkable talent for it — his arrangements were spare, clean, and delicate, with an easy and natural manner that made them comfortable for his musicians to play and yet generated an infectious swing. Among his best works from this period are King Porter Stomp, Down South Camp Meeting, and Wrappin' It Up.

Henderson also had a remarkable gift for discovering new talent. In steady succession, he engaged virtually all of the major black jazz players of the time, many of whom, like Armstrong and Lester Young, he raised from obscurity. As a consequence, few bands ever matched his in the quality of their soloists. Unfortunately, Henderson lacked the traits that make a successful leader. He had little understanding of salesmanship and promotion, and could not control his frequently unruly players, who were often lured away by other bandleaders. Several times his bands broke up owing to his poor management. In 1934, financial problems forced him to sell some of his best arrangements to Benny Goodman, who was then in the process of starting his own band. Henderson's arrangements were an important element in Goodman's rapid rise to popularity, which in turn triggered the enormous success of swing bands from 1935 to 1945. Henderson led bands until 1939, when he joined Goodman as a full-time staff arranger. From 1941, he returned to bandleading and writing arrangements for a living, left behind by the swing-band boom which he had played so large a part in bringing about. He suffered a severe stroke in December 1950 and was partially paralyzed until his death.

Despite his lack of personal force, Henderson's musical intelligence and taste were important factors in creating the character of big-band jazz. Although he was not alone in shaping the big-band style, his group was the principal model for this music, and its second-hand influence, through the bands of Goodman and others, was profound. His personal papers are in the holdings of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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