Henderson, Fletcher

views updated Jun 11 2018

Fletcher Henderson

Bandleader, composer, pianist

Reading Skills Valued at Pace and Handy

Creating A New Style

Enter Armstrong

Artistic Resurgence, Commercial Decline

Selected discography


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 theundesirable influence of the blues.

Viewed as part of a well-rounded education, Hendersons 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 Hendersons university colleagues gave him the nickname Smack.

Reading Skills Valued at Pace and Handy

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 sheetmusic, rather than traditional interpretations of the blues, Hendersons musical reading skills were held in high regard at the company.

In 1921 Handys 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 Paces disinterest in blues and other non-classical forms, he employed Henderson

For the Record

Born James Fletcher Henderson, December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, GA; wifes name, Leora. Education: Attended Atlanta University, 1916-20.

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.

a respected college graduate and formally trained musicianto become the companys 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 wed 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).

Creating A New Style

Since Hendersons 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 side-men 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 Hendersons 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 the20s.

By mid-1923 Henderson was one of the most in-de-mand 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, Hendersons 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.

Hendersons 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 bands sections, reeds against brass, in a way that would become cliché of the era.

Enter Armstrong

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 bands new three-man trumpet section. Armstrongs fourteen-month stay had a profound impact on the bandhis 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 Armstrongs 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 Armstrongs sway was captured on the bands 1925 recording Sugar Foot Stomp. A reworking of King Olivers 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 Armstrongs 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 bands 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.

Artistic Resurgence, Commercial Decline

But Hendersons economic and artistic success proved short-lived. The first setback came with Redmans 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. Hendersons 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 Redmans 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,Smacks band was beginning to find the going a little tough around32 and33. 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 Hendersons 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 asDown Home Camp Meetin and Wrappin It Up, that his orchestras 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 hed 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 Berrys Christopher Columbus, arranged by the bandleaders 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 bands final demiseexcept for five more sides cut in 1941 by a temporarily reorganized bandwas sad indeed, when one considers that the band could hardly manage even a well-known vintage piece likeMoten Stomp.

Following stints at Chicagos 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 Yorks 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 comebackworking 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 Beatr review of Hendersons music, critic Kevin Whitehead measured the enduring impact of Hendersons contribution to American musical history by boldly expressing: If you consider yourself culturally literate you better know your Fletcher Henderson.

Selected discography

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.


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.

John Cohassey

Henderson, Fletcher 1897–1952

views updated May 18 2018

Fletcher Henderson 18971952

Bandleader, arranger

At a Glance

Selected discography


From different perspectives, Fletcher Henderson has been viewed as the creator of the jazz style known as swing, and as merely a working musician who happened to be present as the style took shape. What is beyond doubt is that the bands Henderson led in the 1920s and 1930s were vitally significant incubators of new developments in jazz. Henderson played a key role in bringing improvisatory jazz styles from New Orleans and other areas of the country to New York, where they merged with a dance-band tradition that relied heavily on arrangements written out in musical notation. The new music that developed at Henderson's hands and under his mentorship allowed the composer's art to flourish, yet left room for the improvisatory talents of individual jazz soloists--striking a balance that has influenced jazz ever since.

Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, on December 18, 1897, James Fletcher Henderson enjoyed the best education available to an African American in the pre-Civil Rights South. His father was teacher and later a school principal, and both his parents played the piano. Henderson started piano studies at age six, but it was the classical compositions of Europe that he was taught; his parents frowned upon vernacular or down-home black traditions. He attended prep school in Atlanta and then moved on to Atlanta University, graduating in 1920 with a degree in chemistry.

Henderson moved north in 1920 hoping for a career as a research chemist, but the best he could do in the still-segregated sciences was a job as a lab assistant. His musical talents turned out to be more useful when he was hired the following year by the Pace & Handy music publishing firm and then by the new black-oriented Black Swan record label. His classical background and music-notation skills attracted notice at Black Swan, and when the company prepared for a national tour by its prime property, blues vocalist Ethel Waters, Henderson became the leader of her backing group.

The experience gave Henderson an education in African-American rhythms. On that tour Fletcher wouldnt give me what I call the damn-it-to-hell bass, that chump-chump stuff that real jazz needs, Waters recalled in her autobiography (as quoted in The Music of Black Americans). She dispatched Henderson to study piano-roll recordings of the Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson. Then, as he led bands in various New York venues in the early 1920s, he proved

At a Glance

Born James Fletcher Henderson on December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, GA; died December 29, 1952, in New York, NY; son of a school teacher and principal; married Leora Meaux, 1925. Education: Atlanta University, B.S., chemistry, 1920.

Career: Jazz bandleader, arranger, and pianist. Pace & Handy publishing firm, song demonstrator, 1920; Black Swan record label, musical director, 192123; formed band, early 1920s; resident band at Roseland Ballroom, New York, 192436; began writing own arrangements, late 1920s; sold arrangements to Benny Goodman and others, 1930s; led band at Grand Terrace club, Chicago, 1936; joined Benny Goodman band as staff arranger, 1939; toured with own band during World Ward II; toured as pianist with Ethel Waters, 1949; formed sextet in New York City, 1950.

to have a keen ear for emerging solo talents. His ten-piece band in 1923 included saxophonists Don Redman and Coleman Hawkins, and by the following year, when he began a 12-year residence at New Yorks Roseland Ballroom, the band had grown to 16 players. One of them was a recent arrival from New Orleans, a cornetist named Louis Armstrong who remained with Henderson for 14 months.

With Redman writing the bands arrangements and all the instrumentalists in the band responding in inspired ways to Armstrongs pathbreaking innovations as a jazz soloist, Hendersons band evolved into one of the top ensembles in the country. Redmans arrangements and Hendersons own, which he began to write after Redman left to form his own band in 1927, contained the features familiar to anyone who has ever heard a classic swing recording: sectional interplay between brasses and reeds, a smooth sheen that did not foreclose a propulsive dance-floor energy, and well-conceived interludes that called upon the improvisatory skills and styles of individual players. Another important contributor to the Henderson sound was saxophonist Benny Carter, in whose arrangements the Henderson band became a natural extension of his own saxophone playing.

One bandleader influenced heavily by Hendersons innovations was Duke Ellington, who credited Henderson with inspiring the sound toward which he aimed in his initial forays into bandleadership. Another was the white clarinetist Benny Goodman, who began purchasing Hendersons arrangements. That helped keep Henderson afloat during a difficult period that resulted from the Great Depression slowdown and from the aftereffects of an auto crash that temporarily sidelined Henderson in 1928. With few records being made at the height of the Depression in the early 1930s, Hendersons style at the point when swing was developing and becoming a distinct genre is sparsely documented. But Goodman and other musicians have repeatedly attested to Hendersons importance. Goodmans trademark number, King Porter Stomp, derives largely from a Henderson arrangement.

Hendersons own popularity suffered somewhat in the 1930s as his band began to face competition from those led by Ellington, Count Basie, the Dorsey Brothers, and other musicians. His band temporarily broke up when he ran out of money to pay them after a Detroit trip in 1934. He continued to spot and hire important emerging players, however, featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge during an extended 1936 engagement at Chicagos Grand Terrace club. In 1939 Henderson disbanded his group and went to work for Benny Goodman as a staff arranger, an occupation that had consumed much of his creative energy for the previous several years in any event.

Thus the ensemble sound heard on Goodmans classic recordings just before the outbreak of World War II was largely Hendersons creation. Henderson gained a measure of financial security from his time with Goodman, but soon gravitated back to the bandstand himself. During World War II he led a new band of his own, and after the war, continuing his work for Goodman, he served as an accompanist once again for Ethel Waters, who launched a revival tour. As the large swing bands proved less and less financially viable in the years after the war, Henderson adapted by forming a sextet that appeared at New Yorks Café Society club.

Partly paralyzed by a stroke in 1950, Henderson died in New York on December 28, 1952. Eclipsed by the giants of swing who came after him, Henderson for a time was insufficiently appreciated for his contributions. Reissue LPS featuring his work helped resuscitate his reputation, but what really did the job was the rise of serious historical studies of jazz in the late twentieth century; musicologists traced the careers of jazz musicians between the wars and found that the paths of many of them intersected with Hendersons career. Henderson did his work well, noted jazz historians Lewis Porter and Michael Ullman in Jazz from Its Origins to the Present. By 1934, there was a host of fine big bands, many stocked with ex-Henderson writers and players.

Selected discography

A Study in Frustration: The Fletcher Henderson Story, Thesaurus of Classic Jazz, Columbia/Legacy, 1994.

Introduction to Fletcher Henderson: 19211941, Best of Jazz, 1996.

Under a Harlem Moon, ASV.

Rarest Fletcher, Vol. 1: 192324, MCA.

First Impressions: 19241931, MCA.

Swingin the Thing: 193134, MCA.

Fletcher Henderson and the Dixie Stompers: 19251928, DRG.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 16, Gale Research, 1996.

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 5: 19511955, American Council of Learned Societies, 1977.

Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.

Porter, Lewis, and Michael Ullman, Jazz from Its Origins to the Present, Prentice Hall, 1993.

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford, 1989.

Southern, Eileen, The Music of Black Americans, 3rd ed., Norton, 1998.


All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com.

James M. Manheim

Henderson, Fletcher

views updated May 23 2018

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson (1897–1952) was a key figure in the development of the ensemble jazz style known as swing. As a bandleader and composer himself, and as an arranger for the Benny Goodman Band in that group's golden years just before World War II, he nurtured both the sound of swing and the players who made the music.

Henderson did not grow up playing jazz or improvised music of any kind, and as a musician himself, he was no more than adequate. Historians have differed as to his significance in jazz history. Some argue that the swing genre sprang practically full-blown from his arranger's pen, while other better-known musicians reaped the benefits of his discoveries. Other writers contend that Hen-derson happened to be at the center of a vital musical scene in New York City just as the new music was taking shape, and that other musicians deserve equal credit for swing's artistic accomplishments and growth in popularity. Henderson's biographer Jeffrey Magee takes a middle ground, writing in The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz that "to get at what Henderson did, it might be best to describe him as a musical catalyst, facilitator, collaborator, organizer, transmitter, medium, channel, funnel, and 'synergizer,' if such a word existed."

Studied Classical Music

Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, on December 18, 1897. His father was an educator, and both his parents played the piano. Henderson enjoyed an unusually good education for an African American in the South at the height of segregation. His father mortgaged the family home to the hilt to finance his son's education. Henderson attended Howard Normal School, a black prep school in Atlanta, and then majored in chemistry at Atlanta University, graduating in 1920. He began taking classical piano lessons at age six. His parents steered him clear of ragtime piano and the other African-American musical traditions of the rural South, but he developed sharp musical instincts and a good ear that allowed him to learn new musical traditions quickly. In the Atlanta University chapel he served as the school organist.

With ideas of studying chemistry at Columbia University, Henderson moved to New York in 1920. Higher education, in the sciences as elsewhere, was still highly segregated, and he ended up working as an assistant in a chemistry lab. Music actually offered him greater opportunities. Rooming with a pianist, he filled in for his roommate on a riverboat job and was noticed and hired for further work by Fred "Deacon" Johnson, an influential booker who had worked with the Clef Club orchestra, the leading black ensemble of the pre-jazz years. Soon Henderson had a full-time job as a song plugger—a salesman who promoted songs to artists—with the Pace & Handy music publishing firm, recently formed by legendary blues arranger W.C. Handy and Atlanta University alumnus Harry Pace.

In 1921 Henderson moved on with Pace to the new black-oriented Black Swan record label. The classically trained Henderson turned out written musical arrangements quickly for use in the Black Swan studios, and Henderson was picked to lead the backing group for Black Swan artist Ethel Waters on her national tour. It was on that tour that Henderson began to grasp the energy of blues, jazz, and popular African-American rhythms. "On that tour Fletcher wouldn't give me what I call the 'damn-it-to-hell bass,' that chump-chump stuff that real jazz needs," Waters recalled (as quoted by Magee). She gave Henderson some piano rolls by the Harlem "stride" pianist James P. Johnson. "To prove to me he could do it, Fletch began to practice," Waters said. "He got to be so perfect, listening to James P. Johnson play on the player piano, that he could press down the keys as the roll played, never missing a note. Naturally he began to be identified with that kind of music, which isn't his kind at all."

Back in New York, Henderson began to show up on records as accompanist to an increasingly wide variety of singers. The piano or small-band accompaniments heard on the mid-1920s recordings of jazz-influenced "classic blues" singers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey are often Henderson's. His name became better known among musicians, and by 1923 he had joined with an eight-piece band of his own, performing at New York's Club Alabam. The college-educated Henderson was picked as leader because it was thought that he projected the personable image the group would need in order to crack the New York high society market. Henderson proved to be an astute judge of emerging talent. His 1923 band included future saxophone superstar Coleman Hawkins, then 19 years old, and another saxophonist with arranging talents, Don Redman. By the following year, when Henderson settled in for a long residence at New York's Roseland Ballroom, his band had expanded to ten and then to sixteen musicians, and had taken on a trumpeter recently arrived from New OrleansLouis Armstrong.

Added Jazz Elements to Dance Styles

Henderson experienced success partly because he identified an unfilled niche: a top-notch African-American dance band that could read music and compete on equal terms with white ballroom orchestras like that of Paul Whiteman was bound to make a splash among both black and white audiences. For downtown appearances, trumpeter Howard Scott recalled (as quoted by Magee), that Henderson "was a very strict leader. Every night you had to … stand inspection. He'd look at your hair, your face, see if you shaved, your shoes, see if they're shined. You had to be perfect to suit him." In Harlem, musicians sought to emulate Henderson by learning to read music. The big bands of the swing era, which depended partly on musical notation, would soon be stocked with players who had either worked directly with Henderson or been inspired by him indirectly.

But Henderson did not simply imitate the sound of white bands. Armstrong, who remained with Henderson for 14 months, and the other young jazz players Henderson hired, pushed the sound of the band toward the freer, more energetic type of jazz that was flowering as Americans became more and more aware of the non-notated ensemble improvisations coming out of New Orleans and traveling northward toward the Midwest. Armstrong and Henderson both characterized their relationship as a mutually beneficial exchange. Don Redman began writing arrangements that balanced the talents of individual improvisers with varied large-band textures, and Henderson's band began to gain popularity beyond New York. He took over some of the arranging chores in 1927 after Redman departed to form his own group, and the music he made during this period features the textures that became characteristic of swing in general: interaction between brass and reed sections, a smooth surface with plenty of dance-floor energy coming from drummers, and solo interludes that provided a space for the artistry of talented individual players.

Saxophonist Benny Carter, another important entertainer who emerged from the Henderson band, also wrote arrangements for the band, creating effective showcases for his own playing. The innovative arrangements of the Henderson band were closely followed by other musicians. One who credited Henderson as a direct influence was bandleader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, who raised the Hendersonian art of showcasing distinctive individual players to a level of perfection. White clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman was another Henderson admirer who began purchasing Henderson's arrangements and compositions. That helped Henderson and his big band stay afloat financially when Henderson suffered injuries in an auto accident in 1928. But Goodman's appropriation of Henderson's material also disguised Henderson's contribution to jazz at a key point in its history—the emergence of swing onto a national stage. One of the Benny Goodman band's most-played pieces, "King Porter Stomp," was based heavily on a Henderson arrangement. But the Great Depression severely curtailed the activities of recording companies, and the musical activities of Henderson himself during the Depression years are poorly documented. Even so, Henderson pieces like "The Stampede" and "Rocky Mountain Blues" became well-known jazz standards.

Henderson led a band at the Harlem club Connie's Inn in the early 1930s and continued to record sporadically. His popularity dropped somewhat with the emergence of newer swing bands led by Ellington, Count Basie, the Dorsey Brothers, and other musicians. His business skills were inferior to his musical ones, and jazz historian John Lincoln Collier (as quoted in American Heritage) noted that Henderson had "an almost pathological lack of self-assertiveness." Henderson's group disbanded when he ran out of money to pay them after a Detroit engagement in 1934. He had not lost his eye for talent, however; a new group he formed for a 1936 residency at Chicago's Grand Terrace ballroom included future trumpet star Roy Eldridge. Henderson's role with the Goodman band expanded as the band rose to the top of the charts, thanks to appearances on the Camel Caravan radio program sponsored by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco firm. Henderson took a full-time job as staff arranger with the bandleader in 1939, dissolving his own group and sometimes playing piano in the newly integrated Goodman band.

Toured in Battle of Sexes Act

Goodman's recordings made between 1935 and 1940 came to be seen as emblematic of swing at its height, and Henderson was a key unseen presence behind their creation. Henderson's work for Goodman brought financial rewards, but he soon gravitated back to the bandstand himself. During World War II he formed a band that took on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all female Jazzband, in a touring "Swing Battle of the Sexes." After the war he continued to work with a diminished Goodman band and came full circle by touring as accompanist once again for Ethel Waters. Always quick to catch on to new trends, Henderson adapted to the decline of swing by forming a sextet that appeared at New York's Café Society club. In the late 1940s he was slowed by a variety of health problems.

Henderson suffered a series of strokes beginning in 1950, and became partly paralyzed. He died in New York City on December 28, 1952. The specific talents of the swing giants who came after him eclipsed his pioneering contributions, and Henderson's name was forgotten for a time. Reissued LPs helped revive his musical reputation, as did the historical studies of jazz that were undertaken in the late twentieth century; enthusiasts and jazz scholars traced the careers of jazz musicians in the 1920s and 1930s, and they noticed how many jazz career paths intersected with Henderson's.

Whatever his specific role, it is indisputable that the bands Henderson led in the 1920s and 1930s were on the forefront of new developments in jazz. Henderson drew on his unusual musical background to facilitate the incorporation of improvisational jazz styles from New Orleans and other areas of the country into the musical life of New York, and into a dance band tradition that relied on arrangements written out in musical notation. The new music that developed under Henderson's leadership struck a balance between improvisation and compositional planning—a balance that continues to shape jazz today.


Bushell, Garvin, as told to Mark Tucker, Jazz from the Beginning, University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 34, Gale, 2002.

Magee, Jeffrey, The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, Oxford, 2005.

Porter, Lewis, and Michael Ullman, Jazz from Its Origins to the Present, Prentice Hall, 1993.

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford, 1989.


American Heritage, November 1994.


"Fletcher Henderson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 8, 2006).

"Fletcher Henderson," Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, http://www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_henderson_fletcher.html (February 13, 2006).

"Fletcher Henderson (1897–1952)," Harlem 1900–1940: the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, http://www.si.umich.edu/CHICO/Harlem/text/fhenderson.html (February 13, 2006).

"James Fletcher Henderson," Red Hot Jazz, http://www.redhotjazz.com (February 13, 2006).