Biography of James Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952)

Pianist, composer and leader of jazz bands, pioneered the combination of orchestral arrangements with free improvisation. He/She was born with the name of James Fletcher Henderson, on December 18, 1897 in Cuthbert, Georgia; He/She married Leora. He/She was the son of a College Professor of middle class and a music teacher who forced his three sons to make serious study of music from early. He/She began studying piano at age six, and often contained him in a bedroom forcing him to practice; After seven years of classical schooling, he/she learned to read at sight and improvise; He/She studied at the University of Atlanta between 1916 and 1920, where he/she studied mathematics and chemistry, but devoted most of his time to sports, especially to play baseball; as he/she had a habit of hitting and make a singular noise with the lips (which in English is "Smack") the nickname of Smack earned among university colleagues.

In 1920, in an attempt to complete their education and find a scientific work, Henderson moved to New York, where he/she met a great lack of work and opportunities for color chemist. As a music publicist W.C. Handy, who was known as the father of the Blues, he/she insisted in making arrangements with traditional music in the traditional blues, Henderson musical skills were highly valued in the company Pace & Handy, where he/she worked as a musical shows, arrangements, and promoting songs; in 1921 the partner of Handy, Harry Pace, left the company and founded Black Swan Records, a company led by a man of color who had such distinguished educator and writer-directors W. E. B. Du Bois and the giant of the real estate of New York, John E. Nail. He/She hired Henderson for his selflessness by blues and other non-classical forms, and by his training in classical music, as music director for Black Swan Recording, where he/she was between 1921 and 1923; in it, Henderson led small bands, organized recording sessions and played the piano for many singers of blues with style of films. As Henderson did not have much contact with the blues, musicians and singers such as Ethel Waters considered him half-heartedly; This, in his first encounter with the pianist, found lacking in actual knowledge or feeling to play blues music. In their study, Henderson and his choir began to independently develop a new style, incorporating improvisation and laxity of the blues to European standard musical forms. Although this style had the relaxed feeling of the style of New Orleans or Chicago, contributing clearly to merge African-American and European musical traditions. In mid-1923, Henderson was one of the most sought-after men in New York music sessions, and Edison made recordings for the Black Swan, for Columbia, Paramount and the House. At that time he/she met a group and became leader of an orchestra of eight people in 1924, group that began to play at the Club Alabam, located on 44th Street, the corner of Broadway. Although he/she was reluctant to lead a band, his colleagues cheered him; He/She was its director until its dissolution, in 1935; the components were: banjo Charlie Dixon, Kaiser Marshall drums, to Ralph Escudero tuba, SAX of Coleman Hawkins and the trumpets of Elmer Chambers and Joe Smith. His arranger, SAX Don Redman, was the lifeblood of the Group; Redman, Prodigy musical, was responsible for largely modern character and the musical band of Henderson development. On a tour that made Ethel Waters in 1921, Henderson heard a new, young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and asked him to join his band. Armstrong joined in 1924 as the third section of the trumpets. After fourteen months in the band, it caused a deep impact on her, inspiring to Redman, in his arrangements for solo, and his companions. At the same time the band helped to develop the skills of improvisation of Armstrong. An excellent example of the ability and art of Armstrong was captured in the recording that made the band in 1925, Sugar Foot Stomp. With the departure of Armstrong in 1925, Henderson continued its commercial success. Since established his residence at Roseland Ballroom on Broadway in 1924, the Henderson band enjoyed a stable economic situation. From Roseland live radio performances and tours of season in the East gave him fame throughout the country. However, its economic and artistic success did not last long. The first setback came when Redman left the band in 1927. The following year, a car ran over Henderson, as a result had to wear a collar and left him facial scars. During his recovery, he/she fell into a deep depression. His wife, Leora, said that since the accident he/she returned not to be the same. The continuous change of musicians and inability to replace Redman led the group to a vacuum period art.

With the arrival of drummer Walter Johnson and John Kirby tuba, along with contributions in the Benny CarterSAX arrangements, began the resurgence of the group in 1930, although the band continued with their financial struggle. The lack of work carried group to its dissolution in 1935. In 1936, Henderson found work as an arranger for Benny Goodman. Within a few months he/she met a new band with soloists such as trumpeter Roy Eldridge, the saxophonist Chu Berry and drummer Sid Catlett. That same year, Henderson established his band at the Grand Terrace in Chicago and got his first hit with Christopher Columbus, Berry, arranged by the brother of the leader, Horace Henderson.

In 1939 he/she joined Goodman again and worked sporadically. He/She made appearances at the Rhumboogie Room and the Club Delisa in Chicago, in 1945; He/She did a tour as pianist for Ethel Waters in 1949; and led a sextet at the Bop City and Cafe Society in New York in 1950. That same year, being a member of the Jazz Train show at Bop City, suffered a heart attack that left him partially paralyzed. He/She died on December 28, 1952, after suffering another heart in the street attack.

Fletcher Henderson, a figure whose place in the history of the music continues in debate and discussion, occupies a unique place in the development of jazz. Pianist with classical studies, tended a bridge between the world of formal music writing and the art of African American improvisation, creating a new style of jazz known as "swing." Orchestra The main exponent of the style of New York or the coast this (eastcoast), Henderson, landed as part of the band and Orchestra society in the 1920s and emerged in the 1930's as a leader of a group of jazz model.

Despite his many years of struggle and absence of commercial success, Henderson managed to stand out as a man who, in the decades of the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, remained at the crossroads of modern musical development. His contribution to this art form, was not only orchestral, but that he/she and his companions showed that improvisation can flourish in the context of the music written and that spontaneity and careful preparation are not incompatible.


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. 1929-1937 swing, 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.


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COHASSEY, John: Contemporary Musicians, May 1996 (Volume 16)