Fletcher Henderson was a bandleader, musician, composer, and arranger. His great talent lay in his ability to take a melody and arrange parts for a big band, dividing the and into parts and creating interplay between musicians. He made other people’s bands sound great.
Born in Georgia in 1897, Henderson came from a middle class black family and studied chemistry and mathematics at university. He was also a talented pianist, and by 1923 had moved to New York and was recording regularly with artists such as Bessie Smith, Buster Bailey, Don Redman, and Coleman Hawkins. Henderson was the musical director of the black-owned and run Black Swan Records between 1921 and 1923, and by 1924 had founded his first band.
This Henderson band included the 24 year old Louis Armstrong, and the inestimable composer and musician Don Redman. Over the years Henderson’s band attracted some of the greatest musicians of the day: Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart, Henry Red Allen, Benny Carter, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey and more. Henderson’s band didn’t just sound good. It looked good too. Henderson insisted the musicians dressed well, were clean and tidy, and were professional on stage. This made a difference in the 1920s in the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.
A jazz band’s arranger takes a song and arranges parts for all the musicians in the band. A good arranger can take an old favourite and make it truly sing. A good arranger provides parts for musicians that lets them really stretch and show off their talents. Henderson’s bands were home to some of the finest arrangers and composers of the jazz age. Benny Carter followed Don Redman as composer and arranger for the band, and by 1931 Henderson had begun arranging music for his popular band.
Henderson’s orchestra had disbanded by 1934, the victim of difficult times and perhaps mismanagement. But Henderson continued in the music industry, starting new bands, abandoning them, composing and arranging for band leaders, and eventually settling into arranging. He arranged music for the biggest names in jazz, including Count Basie.
On John Hammond’s urging, Benny Goodman began buying arrangements from Henderson, and eventually used him in his band as a pianist. This was revolutionary: in these days of American segregation, Goodman’s all-white band was the first to employ a black musician on stage. Henderson’s arrangements for Goodman’s band in the mid to late 30s were instrumental to that band’s huge success. His music was inspired, Goodman’s leadership strict, and his band talented. Henderson rewrote some of his own band’s hits for Goodman, including King Porter Stomp and Down South Camp Meeting. He even played with Goodman’s Sextet in the late 30s.
In 1950 Henderson suffered a massive stroke, and eventually passed away in 1952.