The first time I became aware of jazz legend Fletcher Henderson was – surprisingly enough – in a movie. But it was definitely a very musically-oriented one, 1955’s The Benny Goodman Story. And even though Henderson’s character appeared in the movie, he had actually died a few years earlier and was played by Sammy Davis (Senior).
Sammy didn’t do a lot of acting – not nearly as much as his famous son – but it was a small part, and only required a short, black, soft-spoken guy in a suit, and he nailed it. I remember noticing that everyone seemed to have a lot of respect for him, and since the movie was filled with real jazz musicians playing themselves, I assumed that he was the real thing.
The real Fletcher Henderson was one of the most important of the early jazz pioneers, beginning as early as 1921 when he first began making records. But even though he was a capable pianist, his strengths lay in other areas. Within a few years he’d formed an outstanding jazz band and for the next three decades was tremendously influential, not just as a leader but as a composer and arranger.
He was also great at spotting talent, and the list of alumni of his band reads like a honor roll of black jazz musicians. It includes Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Lester Young — and even Fats Waller sat in for a while. His band was one of the most popular early groups, and his appearances at hot spots such as the Roseland ballroom and the Cotton Club were well-attended. One of his best from those days is very evocative of the era: “Sugar Foot Stomp.”
But even though the public knew him best as a bandleader, it was as an arranger that he was most appreciated by his peers. Good arrangers were (and are) one of the most critical facets of any successful group, and although the rise of new, hot swing bands in the 1930’s overshadowed Henderson’s band – and led to its demise – those same bands needed his arranging abilities. Smart bandleaders knew that a great arranger could mean the difference between success and failure for a band.
Henderson began contributing to some of the best bands, especially Benny Goodman’s (as in the movie) and had a hand in many of the band’s hits, including “King Porter Stomp” and “Down South Camp Meeting.” Later in the decade he reformed his own band and had a minor hit with “Christopher Columbus,” but that success was short-lived and he eventually returned to full-time employment with Goodman, even occasionally playing a little piano.
During the 1940’s, Henderson tried several times to again make it as a leader, but it wasn’t until the end of the decade that he finally did well with a sextet he’d formed that featured saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Unfortunately, Henderson had a stroke soon after, and that ended his career. When he died a couple of years later, the jazz world lost one of its best.