Fletcher Henderson was a major force in jazz of the 1920s and 30s in several areas. A decent if not overwhelming pianist, Henderson was most significant as a bandleader, an arranger and a masterful talent scout. He led the first important jazz big band (if one does not count Paul Whitemans more commercial unit) and, although Don Redman was the main writer in his early bands, by 1931 Henderson had developed into an increasingly influential arranger. As a talent scout, Henderson had no close competition during the period. Such remarkable players as trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier, Bobby Stark, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Henry "Red" Allen and Roy Eldridge, trombonists Charlie Green, Jimmy Harrison, Benny Morton, Sandy Williams, Dickie Wells and J.C. Higginbotham, clarinettists Buster Bailey and Russell Procope, altoist Benny Carter and tenors Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Chu Berry were among the giants who spent important periods in his orchestra.
Born 18 December 1897 in Cuthbert, Georgia, Henderson earned degrees in chemistry and mathematics and in 1920 came to New York with plans on becoming a chemist. However with the racism of the times, there was no demand for black chemists. Instead, Henderson found a job as a song demon-strator with the Pace-Handy music company. Harry Pace soon founded the Black Swan label and Henderson became his house pianist, backing blues singers (including Ethel Waters) and organizing bands. Henderson started recording as a leader as early as 1921 and more extensively two years later, forming his own permanent orchestra in January 1924. From the start, he had jazzs leading big band, particularly after Louis Armstrong joined later in 1924 and influenced the other sidemen towards legato phrasing, dramatic solos and swinging. It was not until 1927 when Duke Ellington surpassed Henderson that other big bands began to catch up. But, based at the Roseland Ballroom for many years, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra remained near the top of its field during its entire existence.
In 1931 when this set begins, Henderson was 33 and grappling with the Depression. His orchestra had only recorded a total of eight songs during 1929-30 but it was still an all-star outfit that could compete with any other ensemble of the time. Rex Stewart (several years before he became famous with Duke Ellington) and the underrated Bobby Stark took many heated trumpet solos, Benny Morton and Claude Jones were among the best trombonists of the time, Russell Procope was equally skilled on clarinet and alto, and Coleman Hawkins was the pacesetter among tenor-saxophonists. The rhythm section included John Kirby (doubling on bass and tuba) who would lead a famous sextet later in the decade and rhythm guitarist Clarence Holiday, the father of Billie Holiday. While Fletcher Henderson contributed the majority of the arrangements, he sometimes utilized charts from other writers including his brother pianist Horace Henderson.
This collection begins with nine of Hendersons best recordings from 1931 and one song from the following year. Sugar Foot Stomp is Don Redmans adaptation of King Olivers "Dippermouth Blues" which was originally recorded by Henderson in 1925. This up-tempo version has spots for Procope, Morton (one of his best solos) and Hawkins. Just Blues has spots for five of the six horn soloists with a musical conversation between Jones and Stark, a Stewart solo, more conversing (this time by Hawkins and Stark) and spots for Morton and Stark. The old dixieland standard Tiger Rag (first recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918) gets an unusual treatment with part of the melody being played by the ensemble at half-speed. Procope and Jones have solos while Stewart and Hawkins trade four-bar phrases.
On Star Dust, Hendersons orchestra sounds like a dance band, with Stewarts chorus recalling cornetist Bix Beiderbecke a bit. Stewart plays even more like Bix on Singin The Blues, a Bill Challis arrangement that is a direct tribute to the classic Bix Beiderbecke/Frank Trumbauer recording of four years earlier. Since Bix was still alive (he died three and a half months later), one wonders if he ever heard this recording. Radio Rhythm has a remarkable arrangement from Nat Leslie that sounds like the theme for a dramatic radio show. Morton, Procope on alto (taking one of his finest solos of the time), Jones and Stark keep the momentum flowing with statements that grow logically out of the arrangement. Ill Be Glad When Youre Dead You Rascal You, a Louis Armstrong hit, gives listeners a rare opportunity to hear Hendersons voice as he announces the song; Claude Jones takes the vocal. Blue Rhythm is notable for the ensembles, driving bass of Kirby and solos of Jones and Procope. Take Me Away From the River (subtitled "Song Of The Viper") has an arrangement that is a bit hallucinating at times, a vocal from guest banjoist Ikey Robinson and a fairly rare Henderson piano solo. Business In F wraps up this portion of the release with some catchy and swinging ensembles.
The rest of this collection consists of two complete sessions from 1933. By this time Stewart, Morton and Holiday had departed, being succeeded by trumpeter-vocalist Henry "Red Allen," trombonist Dickie Wells and guitarist Bernard Addison. Altoist Hilton Jefferson gave the band its seventh strong horn soloist while Horace Henderson was contributing both arrangements and playing piano in his brothers spot.
Horace Hendersons Queer Notions has a very harmonically advanced chord structure, so the bands two most advanced soloists, Hawkins and Allen, are featured throughout, improvising with apparent ease. Its The Talk Of The Town is considered one of Coleman Hawkins finest ballad showcases of the 1930s. Night Life has some heated ensembles and solos by Henderson, Allen, Stark and Hawkins. Although Nagasaki is a feature for Red Allens hot vocal and trumpet (a two-chorus statement that builds and builds), there are also strong if brief appearances by Henderson, Jones, Stark and Hawkins.
The final six songs from 3 October 1933 were released under the name of Horace Henderson (who provided the arrangements and once again plays piano) although it features the exact same personnel as the previous tracks. This is a particularly strong all-round session. Rhythm Crazy has more rhythm than craziness, with some very solid playing from the driving rhythm section, Hawkins, Stark and Dickie Wells who shows off his range and expressive qualities on the trombone. Aintcha Glad is slightly slower but swings just as hard, with Wells, Allen and Hawkins being the solo stars. Red Allen takes over on Ol Man River while Minnie The Moochers Wedding Day is taken at a faster than usual pace, with Wells, Allen and Hawkins preceding some romping ensembles. Coleman Hawkins dominates Ive Got To Sing A Torch Song. The last selection, Happy Feet, had been a hit for Paul Whiteman a few years earlier and proves to be a stirring closer.
Despite the success of these recordings, Fletcher Henderson had to reluctantly break up his orchestra at the end of 1934 and ironically became better known for the arrangements that he contributed to Benny Goodmans big band than for his own group. He led another big band during 1936-39 but ended his life as a freelance arranger, passing away on Dec. 29, 1952 in New York at the age of 55, having made his mark on music history.
Scott Yanow, 2003 author of seven jazz books including Classic Jazz (which covers the 1920s), Swing and Trumpet Kings