Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Fletcher Hamilton Henderson Jr, 18 December 1897, Cuthbert GA; d 28 December 1952, NYC) Pianist, arranger, bandleader; aka 'Smack', said to be from a smacking sound he made with his lips. His band was one of the most influential, but Henderson himself was from a middle-class background, apparently a lackadaisical, unbusinesslike man who got worse under pressure. He played piano from age six; moved to NYC '20 for post-graduate work in chemistry, instead played for the black-owned Pace-Handy music company, becoming recording director for its Black Swan label, led a band on tour with Ethel Waters, etc.

He was elected leader of a band resident at Club Alabam '23, Roseland Ballroom '24, including Coleman Hawkins, Joe Smith, Don Redman, Jimmy Harrison; the band played pop tunes, novelties and simulated blues, but jazz was in the air. Louis Armstrong joined '24; he stayed only a year, but his influence was incalculable. Redman wrote virtually all the arrangements until '27: he divided brass and reed sections (saxes doubled on clarinets; trombones could play against trumpets), played voices against each other in call-and-response, riffs under soloists, etc; variations written for sections as though improvised in unison was the beginning of big-band jazz, while the men began to swing under Armstrong's influence. The list of players who passed through is a list of the best: among the trumpets, Tommy Ladnier, Bobby Stark (1906-45), Joe Smith (1902-37) and his brother Russell (1890-1966: led Henderson's trumpet section 1925-42), Benny Morton, Jimmy Harrison (1900-31), Charlie Green (1900-36, aka 'Big Green') on trombones, clarinettist Buster Bailey, drummer Kaiser Marshall (1899-1948), too many more to list here. Despite a lack of firm leadership, the musicians stayed because the music was so good: 'St Louis Shuffle', 'The Stampede', 'Tozo', 'Henderson Stomp', 'Whiteman Stomp', 'Hop Off', scores more.

Redman left '27; Henderson suffered head injuries in a car crash '28, allegedly becoming even lazier; the band broke up '29, following a date to play a show produced by Vincent Youmans, when a white conductor began firing his men and Henderson did nothing about it (though it is hard to imagine what he could have done). He re-formed with Hawkins, Harrison, sometimes Morton, and the parade of talent continued with Red Allen, Claude Jones, J. C. Higginbotham, Sandy Williams, Rex Stewart, Benny Carter. He lost the Roseland gig to the more reliable Claude Hopkins; Hawk left '34 and went to Europe, partly because the band was going nowhere, succeeded briefly by Lester Young, then Ben Webster and Chu Berry: thus Henderson had hired all the greatest tenor players in pre-war jazz.

Now he had to do his own writing, though with contributions from brother Horace (see below), Carter and others, so he refined the style, which became a smoother music specifically for dancing. Thus Henderson himself was not the innovator but became a popularizer; yet it was still jazz-oriented music with plenty of space for soloists: 'Sugar Foot Stomp' (from King Oliver's 'Dipper Mouth Blues'), and Jelly Roll Morton's 'King Porter Stomp' had been recorded several times since the early days; there were also Horace's 'Big John's Special', 'Down South Camp Meetin'', 'Wrappin' It Up' (all '34), as well as plenty of pop tunes of the day. Henderson himself went broke, disbanded and sold a bundle of charts to Benny Goodman, who touched off the Swing Era or Big Band Era (which see) '35 and had hits with all of them. Diehard jazz fans don't like these arrangements as well as the classics by Redman and others, but cynical young musicians on tour with Benny Goodman '50s-60s were surprised to find that they are not all that easy to play properly, and that when they are played properly, they swing.

It was essentially the style that the lazy Henderson had evolved that dominated pop music for the next 15 years; Henderson himself made no records at all '35, but re-formed and made some of his best: as Dickie Wells wrote, 'You just had to play the notes and the arrangement was swinging.' Waller's 'Stealin' Apples', Horace's arrangement of Edgar Sampson's 'Blue Lou', 'Christopher Columbus' (a hit, based on riffs by Chu Berry and others) and Louis Prima's 'Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing)' were all recorded '36 (Goodman interpolated the last two for the most successful 'killer-diller' of the era). Henderson admired the back-to-basics approach of the Count Basie band, lending Basie his charts when Basie came to NYC; he continued to write for Goodman (e.g. 'Sometimes I'm Happy', though Goodman said Henderson had to be convinced he could do ballad charts). Even while the band was riding its hit 'Christopher Columbus' it faltered, as though Henderson willed himself to fail; two different recordings of 'Stealin' Apples', from March '36 and Dec. '37, could not be more different: on the first the piano intro is so good some have thought it must be Horace, while the second sounds like someone who didn't want to be there.

Broadcasts from the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago in mid-'38 (on Jazz Unlimited, in surprisingly good sound) had the band swinging and sounding good, yet business was failing. He joined Goodman as sextet pianist '39, formed another band '41 with Goodman's help, was a hit again at Roseland but it was his last spark as a leader. He rejoined Goodman '47, Ethel Waters '48-9, led a sextet '50, had a stroke late that year and never played again. He also wrote for Teddy Hill, Jack Hylton, many others; his influence can still be heard in any big band (i.e. see Sun Ra). Tribute To Fletcher Henderson '57 was a joyous, swinging alumni success, unlike most all-star dates. All 65 tracks on which Louis Armstrong played were on a three-CD set on Jazz Oracle, transferred by John R. T. Davis; another CD on Timeless is a clever distillation of these, editing them to provide an overview of how jazz phraseology was being radically changed. The best Henderson overview was the three-CD A Study In Frustration on CBS: '23-38 including almost all those mentioned above; there is nothing frustrating about the music. Hocus Pocus on Bluebird had nearly all the Victor tracks ('27, '31-6); Wild Party and Yeah Man on Hep and Tidal Wave on MCA/GRP have good transfers of '31-4 classics. And the indefatigable Classics label in Europe issued at least eleven CDs of "The Chronological" 1924-40.