Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

Red clay, piney woods...and the 'King of Swing' - Georgia's oft-overlooked jazz innovator

Let’s face it—the feds can find anybody. But that’s not a bad thing when you’re trying to dig up the real story behind a hard-to-pin-down legend like Fletcher Henderson Jr., arguably the single most important figure in the development of big band jazz in America and the man who, according to the title of the best book on him, is “the uncrowned king of swing.”

Henderson was born in tiny Cuthbert, Ga., a town that today seems more dedicated to pursuits other than music: Filling station marquees read “WELCOME HUNTERS,” and restaurant bulletin boards bristle with photos of the town’s youngsters beside the bucks and wild boars they’ve bagged. Residents amble down the middle of the street where the Henderson house still stands and bend over to peer quizzically at the driver of a slow-moving car with out-of-town plates.

The house at 1026 Andrew St. appears to be unoccupied; the tall, narrow windows are shuttered tightly, and the steps leading up to the porch are crumbling. The Henderson family is said to be buried in nearby Greenwood Cemetery, but nobody seems to know where that is, not even a nattily attired gent sitting outside the Smith-Albritten Funeral Home.

Finally, a U.S. letter carrier points the way. The Henderson plot is well cared for; astonishingly, though, the musician’s headstone says nothing about his artistic achievements and mentions only his service in the Student Army Training Corps during World War I.

Better living through chemistry?

According to local lore, Henderson’s pregnant mother was playing the piano when Fletcher signaled his desire to come out and join the band, and a half- hour later, on Dec. 18, 1897, the future pianist, conductor, arranger and composer was born. His father was a school principal and accomplished classical pianist in his own right, and while he insisted that his son take music lessons, he encouraged him to pursue a “practical” path and prepare himself for life as a scientist.

Fletcher Henderson and his father, circa 1923

Fletcher Henderson and his father, Fletcher Henderson Sr., circa 1923

Henderson graduated from Atlanta’s Clark College in 1920 and moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry. He soon realized that his job prospects would be limited by his race; too, his savings were thinned by a cost of living that, even in Harlem, was considerably beyond what he was used to in Cuthbert.

But when it came to choosing a career, another factor may have been just as important. Yes, Fletcher Henderson Sr. insisted that his son practice every day, but he forbade the playing of that new pagan music called jazz. Begin with economic necessity, add the secret joy of defying a puritanical parent’s edict, stir in a little luck, and voilá: A star is born.

Not yet, though. Henderson’s New York roommate played piano for an orchestra on a riverboat that plied the Hudson, and when he became ill, Henderson took his place and soon became a permanent replacement. He also became a “song plugger” for the black-run music publishing firm operated by Harry Pace and W.C. Handy for the respectable sum of $22.50 a week.

Renaissance Man

Within a few months of arriving in New York, Henderson had not only gained access to the city’s musical elite but started on a path to economic success that would allow him to propose to Leora Meoux, a trumpet player in the riverboat orchestra. They married on Christmas Day, 1924. And things were looking up for other young African-Americans as well: Henderson landed in New York at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, that heady time when black artists of every kind were finding their voices.

Jeffrey Magee, author of the definitive biography The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz, notes that, as a Renaissance man, Henderson not only synthesized a variety of musical styles—contemporary urban pop sounds, the classics, blues, ragtime, jazz—but also stood out from peers because of his professionalism. Henderson appears reserved in the few photos that are available of him, straight-backed and smiling faintly, if at all, as though he prefers to let the music do the talking. Clean-shaven and sporting a neatly pressed tuxedo and shined shoes, Henderson went wherever he was needed, whether that meant to his day job, an out-of-town gig or the studio, or simply to take care of the thousand details that comprise the life of the freelancer, especially in such an uncertain profession as music.

In a word, Henderson was a master improviser. In Ken Burns’ Jazz series on PBS, narrator Keith David calls jazz “an improvisational art making itself up as it goes along—just like the country that gave it birth,” and Wynton Marsalis comes on screen to say that “if you were a slave, you had to learn to improvise.” Now the Hendersons of Cuthbert were well away from the days of involuntary servitude. But a boy growing up in rural Georgia would have seen how people make do. And an ambitious young fellow might learn some tricksy ways himself, especially if he were the son of a jazz-hating school principal who sometimes used a leather strap to drive home his moral teachings and make sure they didn’t just linger on the outside of some hapless pupil’s pants.

To improvise, you had to have something to resist, and even in liberal New York, Henderson encountered racial division. By the early ‘20s, he’d already become one of New York’s two premier bandleaders. The first was Paul Whiteman, whose band was all white, just as Henderson’s was all black. Once Whiteman took his band to see Henderson’s at Roseland and came away saying that if Henderson were white, he’d be a millionaire.

The Satchmo era

Race aside, though, Whiteman and Henderson had one thing in common: precision. Especially for Henderson’s band, meticulousness was a necessity, at least in the group’s early days. As black performers, they had to prove they were just as well trained and disciplined as any white group. After a while, though, precision can seem stale, as last week’s tight arrangement becomes this week’s by-the-numbers exercise. Impatient with shows that seemed increasingly rote, Henderson began to look for a new ingredient, someone to turn the band’s broth into a spicy gumbo. In the spring of 1924, he heard about a musician who played in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong.

Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson

Oliver told Armstrong’s wife Lil that he played better than Oliver himself, so to keep the band leader from looking bad, Armstrong would always have to play a backing role. An ambitious musician herself, Lil had no interest in being a married to a second trumpet, so she encouraged him to join forces with Henderson. Arranger Don Redman began to write new charts to showcase what Henderson called Armstrong’s “New Orleans punch and bounce.” With that, jazz became swing, a drum-heavy mode that got the dancers out on the floor and turned popular music into something addictive.

But Armstrong’s virtuoso playing was a sign of change in jazz’s basic structure. Once a collective effort, the music now became shaped by individuals striving for their place in the spotlight. Within a year, Armstrong felt as though he wasn’t getting enough playing time, and by the end of 1925, he’d left the Henderson orchestra to return to Chicago.

Armstrong, too, was disturbed by his bandmates’ growing lack of professionalism. Though self-disciplined, Henderson couldn’t bring himself to be the taskmaster his father was. Armstrong was on his way to becoming the greatest trumpet player of his or any time, and he was dismayed by the heavy drinking among Henderson’s musicians and their failure to arrive on time, if at all. There was life yet for the Henderson orchestra, but the lax habits that dismayed Satchmo were an omen of the coming end.

Swing’s blueprint

In the meantime, though, what had Henderson accomplished? The answer is plenty: Critics call him the single most important force in big band history. For one thing, he established the template of the big band orchestra with its three cornets, two trombones, and three reeds as well as the rhythm section of tuba, banjo and drums.

Fletcher Henderson and his band in Atlantic City, NJ. Date unknown

Fletcher Henderson and his band in Atlantic City, NJ. Date unknown

That way, arrangements could be written that were, in the words of jazz writer Dave Oliphant, amazingly simple. The musicians could swing together, but then they could break out into a West African pattern of call and response, the reeds and the brass talking to each other as single instruments had done in earlier formats, with plenty of room in the structure for hot soloists to step up and do their thing. And throughout, of course, there are drums, drums, drums. The liner notes to the Henderson CD that accompanies Ken Burns’ Jazz series observe that the sole responsibility of Henderson’s rhythm section was “to drive dancers mad.”

What went wrong, then? New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff notes “sometimes there is no explaining the wine-dark sea of popular culture, and Henderson went adrift in it.” Never very competitive, he seems to have become even more detached after a 1928 auto accident. Legendary producer John Hammond writes of booking Henderson at a New York theater in 1931, only to have just five of the 13 musicians show up for the opening show.

Yet out of the mystery that is Fletcher Henderson comes a music called swing, even before that term entered common usage. When his fortunes began to decline, he arranged for other bands, notably Benny Goodman’s. He sold many of his original arrangements outright to the clarinetist and bandleader who became known as the King of Swing, and in 1939, he disbanded his own orchestra and joined Goodman’s, eventually becoming the full-time arranger. Henderson suffered a stroke in 1950 and died two years later.

His music is widely available on CDs, though, and it seems vibrantly alive today. Jazz was “born out of a million American negotiations,” as Keith David says, one of which is “between the old Africa and the old Europe,” and it’s easy to hear those negotiations being worked out in a tune like “Sugar Foot Stomp,” where a section of the band has something to do by itself, yet each part blends into a dynamic whole. Or “Sensation,” where the horns spar and the other instruments try to calm them down or spur them on (your call).

In “Radio Rhythm,” which is one of Henderson’s hotter tracks, the different sections of the band go to war, but there’s also rivalry within each: the horns, for example, race each other toward a goal only they can see. In “Shanghai Shuffle,” the start-stop tempo and swirling reeds suggest the Orient as seen by a bunch of New York hepcats, though the last half is dominated by a horn that sounds like an unusually happy duck and a handclap that’s pure jive. At moments like this, you hear how jazz and particularly swing stands at a midpoint between classical music and rock, like the narrow part of an hourglass.

A little-noticed pioneer

In 1973, Henderson was elected by critics into Down Beat magazine’s Hall of Fame. If his name isn’t a household word today, those of many of the musicians he played with are. In addition to Louis Armstrong, other giants of the jazz world got their start or worked with Henderson, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and even Sun Ra, the avant-garde keyboardist who claimed to be from Saturn.

And lest that sound like ancient history, listen to these words about Henderson’s importance today from David Potter, a 24-year-old grad student in Florida State University’s Jazz Studies program: “Aside from being a great musician and bandleader, Fletcher Henderson’s greatest contributions to jazz were probably his arrangements. He, along with a few others, helped to really define the ‘Swing Era’ sound. This is something that is very important for a young musician to study, because at the height of jazz’s popularity, the music was accepted by the audience and at the same time gave musicians the freedom to explore their artistic creativity. This balance is crucial to all styles of music, especially one with the complexity and subtleness that jazz requires.”

Meanwhile, efforts are afoot to solidify the reputation of Fletcher Henderson Jr. For one, Henderson supporters are currently looking for space in Atlanta to establish a museum. Organizer Bob Chaney says, “A lot of people don’t know about him, but the musicians do.”

And in Cuthbert itself, there is an annual Fletcher Henderson Jazz Festival every April, a daylong outdoor gathering offering food, fun and bands galore. In that hard-to-find cemetery off Andrew Street, you hope Fletcher Henderson Sr. will be startled awake by the frantic sounds he hears, scowl fiercely, and then smile.

Special thanks to Bob Chaney for contributing photos.

Related Posts