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Father of Swing

No Schmooze with the Blues

Fletcher Henderson was born a week before Christmas, 1897, into a thriving Cuthbert, Georgia African-American family, the mother a classically trained piano teacher. His family having no interest in the "roots" music from Gospel and Blues sent Henderson, though learned in music, to successfully get a Chemistry and a Math degree from Atlanta University. As fate would have it, he was the victim of discrimination in New York where he was looking for science work and pursuing advanced studies, so he landed a position at the minority ran sheet music printing Pace-Handy Music Company. Henderson then went to assist Harry Pace of Black Swan records organizing musicians around Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. By 1923 his talents were recognized and after playing for the year before, he became the bandleader at the Cotton Club. By next year he was on Broadway leading his own band at the W. 44th St. Club Alabam, followed by his stint at the Roseland Ballroom when a vacuum was formed by Armand J. Piron's departure. He became mastered the legato style of trumpet, and introduced it to the New York scene. He was know for starting 'scat' singing featured in his song, "Everybody Love My Baby," while wowing audiences withe playing two hundred plus high C notes and finalizing the riff with top F.

Talent Magnet

By now he had with him the legendary tenor saxist Coleman Hawkins, clarinetist Buster Bailey and alto sax and assistant arranger, Don Redman; and in 1924, when Joe Smith left, he hired for a little more than year a new sensation: Louis Armstrong - trumpet, gravelly voice, handkerchief and all that jazz. During this time some of the band's best loved wax was cut: Copenhagen, Go Long Mule Shanghai Shuffle, and Sugar Foot Stomp. Henderson's Orchestra had no problem replacing Louis when he went off with Erskine Tate and his Vendome Orchestra with trumpeters like Tommy Ladnier, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Red Allen, Bobby Stark, Roy Eldridge, and June Clark. He discovered trombonists Benny Morton, Charlie Green, Sandy Williams, J.C. Higginbotham, Dickie Wells, and Jimmy Harrison. He helped the careers of not only Coleman Hawkins, but tenor sax men Ben Webster, Chu Berry, and Lester Young (who missed studio); as well as altoists, Benny Carter, Hilton Jefferson, and Russell Procope. There were John Kirby and Israel Crosby for bass while Kaiser Marshall, Sid Catlett and Walter Johnson pounded the skins. Though Henderson was the main pianist he was joined at times by Fats Waller, assisted in arranging by Edgar Sampson, and even Fletcher's baby brother, Horace. They were among the pioneers developing the type of music that would become Big Band, but during its heyday were basically incognito. He went to the studio with musicians under various names: Henderson's Dance Orchestra, Henderson's Happy Six, Henderson's Club Alabam Orchestra, Louisiana Stompers, the Connie's Inn Orchestra and Fletcher Henderson and His Sawin' Six. By 1927 Henderson, had to take over the musical arranging chores, with some aid from Benny Carter, when he lost Redman; and he wrote (or re-wrote) concise finger snapping numbers like King Porter Stomp, Down South Camp Meeting, Alabamy Bound, and Wrapping it Up. 1929 had a fifty percent defection in protest involving white players joining them at a musical revue ,Horseshoes in Philadelphia.

Slip Slidin' Away

Though Henderson always was a finder of talent treasure, his organizational skills left his fingers too slick to hold many of them. The bad times of the thirties caught up with Fletcher, and he sold much of his good compositions to a newcomer, Benny Goodman in 1934. When Goodman benefited from this expertise, he hired Henderson as part of the team in 1939. An a couple of years later he was able to run his own ensemble again, but even though he had a newcomer, Sun-Ra, come on board he struggled for a decade. Just when the fifties began he formed a sextet that showed promise, but a stroke damaged not just his health, but also his future, and that ended sadly in New York -- four days after Christmas, 1952.


Vintage Music
Jenkins, Alsn, The Twenties, London: Book Club Associates, 1974.

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