Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

From Wikipedia
Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Background information
Birth name James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr.
Also known as “Smack” Henderson
Born December 18, 1897
CuthbertGeorgiaUnited States
Died December 29, 1952 (aged 55)
New York CityNew York, United States
Genres Jazzswing
Occupations Pianistarrangerbandleader
Instruments Piano
Years active 1921–1950

James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. (December 18, 1897 – December 29, 1952) was an American pianistbandleader,arranger and composer, important in the development of big band jazz and swing music. His was one of the most prolific black orchestras and his influence was vast. He was often known as “Smack” Henderson (apparently named due to his college baseball hitting skills).  Fletcher is ranked along with Duke Ellington as one of the most influential arrangers and band leaders in jazz history, and helped bridge the gap between the jazz and swing era.


Built by his father in 1888, this house inCuthbertGeorgia is where Fletcher Henderson was born in 1897. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 17, 1982.

Fletcher Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia. His father, Fletcher H. Henderson Sr. (1857–1943), was the principal of the nearby Howard Normal Randolph School from 1880 until 1942.

Henderson attended Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated in 1920. After graduation, he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University for a master’s degree in chemistry. However, he found his job prospects in chemistry to be very restricted due to his race, and turned to music for a living.

He was recording director for the fledgling Black Swan label from 1921–1923. Throughout the early and mid-1920s, Henderson provided solo piano accompanyment for many blues singers. He also led the backing group for Ethel Waters during one of her national tours. Henderson’s group was not technically a jazz band yet (more like a dance band), though its music was inflected with the ragtime rhythms that had been popular for some time. In 1922 he formed his own band, which was resident first at the Club Alabam, then at the Roseland Ballroom, and quickly became known as the best African-American band in New York. Even though he did not do band arrangements in the 1920s, for a time his ideas of arrangement were heavily influenced by those of Paul Whiteman. But when Louis Armstrong joined his orchestra in 1924, Henderson realized there could be a much richer potential for jazz band orchestration. Henderson’s band also boasted the formidable arranging talents of Don Redman (from 1922 to 1927). After Redman’s departure from the band in 1927, Henderson took on the majority of the arranging, although Benny Carter contributed several important scores from 1930–31, and Henderson also bought scores from freelance musicians.  As an arranger, Henderson came into his own in the mid-1930s.

His band circa 1925 included Howard Scott, Coleman Hawkins (who started with Henderson in 1923 playing the low tuba parts on bass saxophone and quickly moved to tenor and a leading solo role), Louis ArmstrongCharlie DixonKaiser MarshallBuster BaileyElmer ChambersCharlie GreenRalph Escudero and Don Redman.

In 1925, along with fellow composer Henry Troy, he wrote “Gin House Blues“, recorded by Bessie Smith and Nina Simone amongst others. His other compositions include the very popular jazz composition “Soft Winds”.

Henderson recorded extensively in the 1920s for numerous labels, including VocalionParamountColumbia, Olympic, AjaxPathePerfectEdisonEmersonBrunswick, Plaza Records and its subsidiary imprints Banner and Oriole. From 1925–1930, he recorded primarily for Columbia, and Brunswick/ Vocalion under his own name, as well as recording a series of acoustic recordings under the name The Dixie Stompers for Columbia’s Harmony and associated dime store labels (Diva and Velvet Tone). During the 1930s, he recorded for Columbia, Crown (as “Connie’s Inn Orchestra”), ARC (Melotone, Perfect, Oriole, etc.), Victor, Vocalion and Decca. Starting in the very early 1920’s, Henderson recorded current popular hits, as well as jazz tunes. (As an example of how prolific his band was, in 1924, he recorded 80 individual sides. His version of the pop tune, “I Can’t Get The One I Want”, recorded c. June 19, 1924 was issued on at least 23 different labels!)

At one time or another, in addition to Armstrong, lead trumpeters included Henry “Red” AllenJoe SmithRex StewartTommy LadnierDoc Cheatham and Roy Eldridge. Lead saxophonists included Coleman HawkinsBuster BaileyBenny Carter and Chu BerrySun Ra also worked as an arranger during the 1940s, during Henderson’s engagement at theClub DeLisa in Chicago. Sun Ra himself said that on first hearing Henderson’s orchestra as a teenager he assumed that they must be angels because no human could produce such beautiful music.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Fletcher’s piano-playing younger brother, Horace Henderson contributed to the arrangements of the band. At different times in Horace’s career, he was Billie Holiday’s and Lena Horne’s pianist. Later, he led a band of his own that also received critical acclaim.

Although Fletcher’s band was quite popular, he had little success in managing it. But much of his lack of recognition outside of Harlem had to do more with the times in which he lived, and the hard times that resulted after the 1929 stock market crash. However, because many of Henderson’s records (Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, Victor and those issued on the many of the dime store labels) still turn up at junk stores, flea markets, collectors stores, on eBay and on private record auctions, there’s no denying how popular his band truly was.

After about 1931, his own arrangements became influential. In addition to his own band, he arranged for several others, including those of Teddy HillIsham Jones and, most famously, Benny Goodman. Henderson’s wife, Leora, said that a major turning point in his life was an auto accident which happened in 1928. Henderson’s shoulder was injured, and he apparently sustained a concussion. Leora claimed that Fletcher was never the same, and that after this point he lost his ambition and became careless. According to Leora, the accident was a major cause of Henderson’s diminishing success. She also claims that John Hammond and Benny Goodman arranged to buy Henderson’s arrangements as a way to support him, and points out that Goodman always gave Henderson credit for the arrangements, and said that the Henderson band played them better than his own. In addition, Goodman and Hammond arranged broadcasts and recordings to benefit Henderson when he was ill.

Benny Goodman

In 1935, Goodman’s Orchestra was selected as a house band for the “Let’s Dance” radio program. Since Goodman needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some from Henderson. Many of Goodman’s hits from the swing era were played by Henderson and his own band in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and usually were head arrangements that Fletcher transcribed from his own records, then sold to Goodman. However, brother Horace Henderson recounts (in Goodman’s biography “Swing, Swing, Swing” by Ross Firestone) that the clarinettist made heavy demands on Henderson for fresh charts while his band was engaged for the “Let’s Dance” show in 1934, and that he himself contributed to help Fletcher complete some of them. Vocalist Helen Ward also states that Henderson was delighted to hear the Goodman orchestra realise his creations with such impeccable musicianship.

In 1939, Henderson disbanded his band and joined Goodman’s, first as pianist and arranger and then working full-time as staff arranger. He re-formed bands of his own several times in the 1940s and toured with Ethel Waters again in 1948–1949. Henderson suffered a stroke in 1950, resulting in partial paralysis that ended his days as a pianist. He died in New York City in 1952.

Contributions to jazz

Henderson, along with Don Redman, established the formula for swing music. The two broke the band into sections (sax section, trumpet section etc.). These sections worked together to create a unique sound. Sometimes, the sections would play in call-and-response style, and at other times one section would play supporting riffs behind the other. Swing, its popularity spanning over a decade, was the most fashionable form of jazz ever in the United States.

Henderson was also responsible for bringing Louis Armstrong from Chicago to New York in October 1924, thus flipping the focal point of jazz in the history of the United States (although Armstrong left the band in November 1925 and returned to Chicago).

Henderson also 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.

A museum is being established in his memory in Cuthbert, Georgia.


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