Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
He attended Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated in 1920, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter organization established for African Americans. 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. In 1922 he formed his own band, which was resident first at the Club Alabam then at the Roseland, and quickly became known as the best African-American band in New York. 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). It's significant to note during the 1920's and very early 1930's, Henderson actually wrote few, if any, arrangements; most of his recordings were arranged by Don Redman (c. 1923-1927) or Benny Carter (after 1927-c. 1931). 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 Armstrong, Charlie Dixon, Kaiser Marshall, Buster Bailey, Elmer Chambers, Charlie Green, Ralph 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.
He also wrote the very popular jazz composition "Soft Winds" among others. Henderson recorded extensively in the 1920s for numerous labels, including: Vocalion, Paramount, Columbia, Olympic, Ajax, Pathe, Edison, Emerson, Brunswick, Plaza Records (Banner, Oriole, and the other Plaza labels). He was recording director for the fledgling Black Swan label from 1921-1923. From 1925-1930, he primarily recorded for Columbia and Brunswick/Vocalion under his own name and 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. At one time or another, in addition to Armstrong, lead trumpeters included Henry "Red" Allen, Joe Smith, Rex Stewart, Tommy Ladnier, Doc Cheatham and Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Lead saxophonists included Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, Benny Carter and Chu Berry.
Sun Ra also worked as an arranger during the 1940s during Henderson's engagement at the Club 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 very popular, he had little success managing the band.
But much of his lack of recognition outside of Harlem had to do more with the times in which he lived. Although he was the real "King of Swing", America was not ready for him to take his place on the throne. After about 1931, he was well regarded as an arranger - and his arrangements became influential. In addition to his own band he arranged for several other bands, including those of Teddy Hill, Isham Jones, and most famously, Benny Goodman.
Henderson's wife, Leora, said that a major turning point in his life was an auto accident which occurred 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 claims that John Hammond and Benny Goodman arranged to buy Henderson's arrangements as a way to support Henderson, and points out that Goodman always gave Henderson credit for the arrangements and said that the Henderson band played them better than the Goodman band. In addition, Goodman and Hammond arranged broadcasts and recordings to benefit Henderson when he was ill. Although Henderson's music was loved by the masses, his band began to fold with the 1929 stock market crash. The loss of financial stability resulted in the selling of many arrangements from his songbooks to the later-to-be-acclaimed "King of Swing" Benny Goodman. In 1934, Goodman's Orchestra was selected as a house band for the "Let's Dance" radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some Jazz charts from Henderson.
Many of Goodman's hits from the swing era were arranged by Henderson for his own band in the late 20s and early 30s. In 1939 Henderson disbanded his own band and joined Goodman's, first as both pianist and arranger and then working full-time as the staff arranger. He reformed bands of his own several times in the 1940s, 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.
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