December 18th, 1897 in Cuthbert, Georgia
December 28th, 1952 in New York City, New York
Pianist, Bandleader, and Arranger
Fletcher Henderson grew up in a middle-class black family in Georgia. His mother taught piano lessons, and his father, a former slave, was a teacher as well. Henderson was exposed to European art and music as a boy, and didn’t become interested in jazz until he moved to New York City as a young man.
Henderson had a basic understanding of music, but he was most interested in the sciences. He studied math and chemistry at Atlanta University, and after graduating in 1920, he moved to New York to study at Columbia University. He soon discovered, however, that the chances of a black man getting a job as a chemist were very slim
Trying to make ends meet, Henderson turned to his musical skills and got a job with the Pace-Handy Music Company. He worked as a song demonstrator, which meant that he performed songs by composers who hoped to have their pieces published as sheet music. When Harry Pace, one of the owners of the company, founded the Black Swan record label, he brought Henderson with him to help organize bands and accompany vocalists on the piano.
In 1921 to 1924, Henderson led his own bands, playing arrangements by Don Redman for dance audiences. The music his band performed was sentimental and smooth, in the style of Paul Whiteman, who was the most famous bandleader at the time. Henderson’s band soon earned a reputation of being the best black big band, and became even more renowned when Henderson’s music incorporated New Orleans jazz.
Sounds of the South:
Trumpeter Louis Armstrong
joined Henderson’s band in 1924, and from then on, Henderson’s music drew from hot jazz, the blues, and African-American spirituals. This fusion of popular dance music and the music of Southern blacks led to the explosion of the swing
craze of the late 1920s and 30s. Henderson’s band became a launch pad for the careers of some of the greatest musicians of the swing era, including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and Benny Carter.
Contribution to the ‘King of Swing’:
By the 1930s, Henderson had taken over as lead arranger for his band. His pieces, characterized by call-and-response interplay between the brass and saxophone sections, and a nimble swing feel, set the standard for swing band arrangers. The Great Depression caused Henderson to break up the band in 1939, and Henderson began selling his arrangements to Benny Goodman, who was quickly on the rise as a bandleader. Goodman eventually hired Henderson to be a staff arranger for his band.
The wide exposure of Goodman’s band, which mainly consisted of white performers, helped spread Henderson’s sound to white and black audiences across the country.
To this day, Henderson’s arrangements are credited with having molded the big band style of the swing era.
In 1950, Henderson’s career was halted when he suffered a stroke. He died two years later at age 55.