Fletcher Henderson was born in Georgia in 1897. Though he went to New York City to look for work as a chemist, he ended up becoming a pianist for Black Swan records before embarking on a career as a bandleader. Henderson's band helped create the swing era sound, but it was Benny Goodman's use of Henderson's arrangements that made swing a popular success. Henderson died in New York City in 1952.
Born on December 18, 1897, in Cuthbert, Georgia, James Fletcher Henderson (who later changed his name to Fletcher Hamilton Henderson Jr. and who was best known as Fletcher Henderson) was the son of two educators. Growing up, his mother taught him to play the piano. Though he developed into a skilled pianist, Henderson did not intend to pursue a career in music, opting instead to study chemistry and math at Atlanta University.
Chemist Turned Bandleader
After graduating from college in 1920, Henderson went to New York City. He had planned to find work using his chemistry degree, but racism limited his opportunities. The musical world was more welcoming, and Henderson began demonstrating songs for a music publishing company. In 1921, he moved to Black Swan records, where he served as a session pianist. One of the performers Henderson worked with was singer Ethel Waters; Henderson also joined Waters on tour as leader of the Black Swan Troubadours.
With the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Henderson became the leader of his own band. The group's music director was Don Redman, whose arrangements featured a call and response between different sections of the band, a style that would come to define the big band sound. In 1924, the orchestra landed a regular gig at New York City's Roseland Ballroom. That same year, Henderson hired Louis Armstrong to join the group.
Henderson and his band were a success at the Roseland, where they would stay for a decade. They also made recordings; their first hit was a reworked "Dippermouth Blues." Though Armstrong left the band in 1925, he had bequeathed a new jazz sound to the group. After Redman departed in 1927, Henderson soon stepped into arranging duty. He proved to be gifted in this area, creating pieces that would usher in swing music's reign of popularity.
Arrangements for Sale
Though he worked with an impressive array of musicians—in addition to Armstrong, Henderson's band members included Benny Carter, Charlie Green and Coleman Hawkins—Henderson was not a successful businessman. As the 1930s progressed, bookings were lost and his musicians sought better opportunities elsewhere.
In 1934, financial straits pushed Henderson to sell some of his arrangements to Benny Goodman, who was starting his own band. Henderson was then forced to see the white bandleader reach a stratospheric level of success—using Henderson's arrangements of songs like "King Porter Stomp," "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "Wrappin' It Up"—that had eluded him. Though Goodman was upfront about Henderson's contributions to his band, it was still a bitter pill for Henderson to swallow.
Henderson's band broke up in 1935; he attempted to re-form a successful band of his own during the latter half of the 1930s—and had a hit with "Christopher Columbus" (1936)—but never reached the same heights as Goodman. In 1939, he became a staff arranger for Goodman.
In the 1940s, Henderson tried his hand at bandleading once more, though he maintained an association with Goodman, while also sending arrangements to other bands. After becoming ill while reunited with Waters on tour, Henderson had a stroke in 1950. Partially paralyzed, he then retired. Henderson died in New York City on December 29, 1952, at the age of 55.
Fletcher Henderson: A Study in Frustration, a collection of recordings from the heyday of Henderson's band, was released in 1994.
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