Fletcher Henderson Day

December 18, 1897 – December 29, 1952

A tribute to the pioneering bandleader

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Bandleader, pianist, arranger and composer James Fletcher Henderson was born on December 18, 1897 in Cuthbert, Georgia.

Henderson grew up in a middle-class family and began playing piano when he was six but he originally moved to New York with plans to become a chemist.

However since African-American chemists were not in demand in 1920, he soon was working as a song demonstrator with the Pace and Handy Music Co, and became the house pianist and musical director at Black Swan Records (1921-23), appearing on quite a few records as an accompanist to blues singers.

Henderson, who toured with Ethel Waters during 1921-22, began leading his own record dates, an ensemble that by 1923 included both arranger-saxophonist Don Redman and tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

In early 1924 he led a regularly working orchestra that played at the Club Alabam and then became the resident band at the Roseland Ballroom (1924-34).

A masterful talent scout, during that decade Henderson’s band featured a large percentage of the top young African-American jazz players including Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier, Rex Stewart, Bobby Stark, Cootie Williams, Red Allen, Charlie Green, Benny Morton, Jimmy Harrison, Sandy Williams, J.C. Higginbotham, Dickie Wells, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson, John Kirby, Israel Crosby, Kaiser Marshall, Walter Johnson and Sid Catlett.

Don Redman and later Benny Carter and Horace Henderson contributed most of the arrangements until the early 1930s when Fletcher Henderson (who was just an adequate pianist) developed into a skilled arranger.

Considering that by 1925 he was leading what could be called the first swing orchestra, it was ironic that by the time the Swing era was ready to begin, Henderson had broken up his big band and instead was contributing arrangements to Benny Goodman’s orchestra which resulted in the clarinetist becoming known as “The King of Swing.”

In 1936 Henderson put together a new orchestra and had a hit in “Christopher Columbus” (featuring trumpeter Roy Eldridge and tenor-saxophonist Chu Berry) but this big band only lasted until 1939.

Fletcher Henderson played with the Benny Goodman Sextet a bit in 1939 and then worked primarily as an arranger, heading other short-lived big bands, working again with Ethel Waters (1948-49), and leading a final sextet before a major stroke ended his career late in 1950.

There are no full-length performances on film by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra so here is his May 29, 1925 recording of “Sugar Foot Stomp” featuring Louis Armstrong, trombonist Charlie Green, clarinetist Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins on tenor.

-Scott Yanow

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