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Eddie Henderson: Healing with Music

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This is what heals me. Playing music. It's what makes me well. How can I help somebody else if I'm not well?
Jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Eddie Henderson always had talent. After all, his first informal lesson on the instrument at the age of 9 was from Louis Armstrong. But his studies went well beyond that. As a teenager he was learning legitimate trumpet at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and performing with the San Francisco Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Proper technique is always the cornerstone of such an undertaking. And so it was with a bit of brashness, and a dash of innocent ignorance, that he spoke to a friend of his parents sometime in 1957 as the two drove down a city street.

Young Eddie didn't know the man well, but had just accompanied him to a gig in San Francisco. "You don't play correct," the teenager told the driver, who promptly screeched the car to a halt.

"What the fuck are you playing?" intoned the man in a gravely voice. "I play trumpet," the boy responded.

"Yeah. I'll BET you play trumpet," said Miles Dewey Davis III as he threw the car back in gear and drove on.

"Actually, I really didn't know who he was," says Henderson in early June, recalling the incident. The first band he heard Davis perform with included John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones. Not unlike watching the Yankees with Mantle, Maris, Berra and Whitey Ford prior to paying attention to the sports pages.

As a family friend, Davis became more familiar to Henderson. In fact, Miles has been a major musical influence on the 62-year-old throughout his life. That culminated in May of 2002 with the recording of So What , a tribute to Davis that features songs associated with the legend. It was released earlier this year. The group - Bob Berg on sax, Dave Kikoski on piano, Ed Howard on bass and either Billy Hart or Victor Lewis on drums, does a scintillating job playing the music.

"Miles is so very special to me because when I was in high school he stayed in my parents' house when he came through town about 1957, '58 and '59 in San Francisco. I was going to the conservatory then studying classical music. I saw him do all these songs live when I was much younger. So when I was asked to do a tribute to him, playing his music, I was thrilled to death and honored. And with such a prestigious company like Sony and Columbia, I said, 'This is going to be fun.'"

The music sparkles. The renditions of "All Blues," "So What," "Footprints," "Prince of Darkness" "Old Folks" and more retain a fresh quality, and Henderson's trumpet - both muted and open — eerily harkens the spirit of Miles, while retaining Henderson's fingerprints as well. His horn burns at times and at others invokes the introspective and mellow side that made Miles so appealing. He deliberately tried to portray Davis, but through his own soul. "I tried to emulate the character of him, through his music, even though it was me. I tried to put myself there. Since it's a tribute to Miles Davis, and he was so important to me, I really wanted to show that I was influenced, not just playing the tunes that he played without any thought of going inside the music and make it come alive as a presentation or dedication to him."

Like Miles' recording style through much of his earlier career, this session was very much "live." The sound and feeling the group achieved is remarkable.

"There was no rehearsal and no music," says Henderson. "Can you imagine that? We just came to the studio. They were professionals. But I did make one statement: 'Whatever you do, don't do it like you've heard it so many times on record.' Like the line to "All Blues," the bass line to "So What" or the bass in "Some Day My Prince Will Come." I said 'Whatever you do, do anything but that, so it'll be a surprise when the melody comes in.'"

"Out of the nine tunes, seven were the first take. The one and only take. The other two, there were two takes, but we used the first take. It was very organic. I'm really thrilled to death it happened like that," he says. "I'm very proud of that product. Everybody on the record made it sound like that. All the elements were there. It was so natural. You could really just play music and not read music."

He added, "If I did it just like the original records, why would anybody buy this commodity? Just sit home and listen to the old records."

But old, it is not. The usually familiar opening to "All Blues" is hidden, and each artist tells a different story over its modal structure. Berg's tone is rough and muscular, Henderson's deft and haunting. His ideas are charismatic and always enhance both the song and the mood. Throughout, the band is together and the renditions of these classic songs are executed beautifully, in both musical makeup and their emotive quality.

"I learned one thing from Miles," he says, "How important it is to pick the right chemistry of people. To tell you the truth, the company wanted me to play with just 'name' people they had in mind, without any thought of musical chemistry or blending. I said absolutely not. I got the people I wanted. You see how it came out. I feel that's real jazz."

"I think everybody had heard Miles' versions of it over the years, so they were very well versed with the vocabulary of the music. But I said 'Don't do it like the record.' Try to interpret your own personal self through the music, with you using that as a foundation. So everybody could express themselves where it wouldn't just sound like a clone."

It also may have been the last recording session of Berg, who was killed later in 2002 in a motor vehicle accident. "That was tragic," says Henderson. "I've known him for years, since the mid-70s, when he first joined Horace Silver. He played with Miles Davis [circa 1985]. Just a fluke accident. Horrible. Shows you how fragile life is. I think he recorded two weeks earlier with Joe Locke, the vibes player, and Ed Howard out in Seattle. I don't think it's out yet. Didn't he play great though?"

So What is a grand tribute to the trumpet player that "didn't play right," and who became a profound inspiration. The influence of Davis on young Eddie began after that day in the car and continues even now.

Miles returned to the Bay area about nine months after that day in the car, Henderson recounted. "In the interim, I found out who he was and bought records. So he walked in my house. My mother was taking pictures. I got my trumpet and said, 'Man, you gotta hear this.' I played with the record. So I ran up to him and said, 'How do you like that?' and he said, [affecting Miles trademark voice] 'You sound good. But that's me.' That was my first revelation.

"These are important things for the predecessors to relay to the people coming up. You should emulate, not imitate," explained Henderson, noting that he also received other tips from Miles. "My stepfather said, 'Show him something.' So he wrote on a napkin, four notes implying a C7 chord. I'm looking at him, and he said, 'Man, don't look at me. Look at the music!' That's about as far as it went as far as formal sitting down stuff, but by going and hearing him play, I learned so much without words."

Such was Henderson's life. He was blessed with knowing many musicians growing up - including getting early tips from Satchmo - because his parents were both entertainers, his mother a dancer at the original Cotton Club and his father a member of the popular singing group Billy Williams and the Charioteers. His stepfather was a doctor to people like Miles and Coltrane and Duke Ellington, so the association with musician continued. Henderson was also blessed with not having to go through a lot of the tough, teeth-cutting, dues-paying pains that many musicians go through. He studied hard in school and in addition to excelling on his instrument, he excelled academically enough to go to medical school and become a doctor.

Not a bad side gig.

Dr. Henderson practiced part-time for many years, in addition to playing gigs and learning directly from two of his other main trumpet influences - Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.

"Music was in my blood," he says. And even though his father died when he was 9, his mother married a man who would continue to influence him. His stepfather loved music, but was a physician. "I guess he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. So I was going to school, very studious. Got good grades. But I was playing trumpet all the time. I really wanted to play music. But I went to UC Berkley and got my undergraduate degree and before I knew it, I was in medical school [Howard University in D.C.]. But I was still playing. I put myself through medical school by playing music at night. I took the attitude that if I don't pass, I wasn't meant to be a doctor. Fortunately, I passed and continued to do both. I will always be playing music because that's my first love."

After Miles Davis, Henderson's influences expanded. "I think the first one that struck me was Freddie Hubbard, when I was in medical school in Washington, D.C., and then Lee Morgan. Every weekend for four years I would drive up to New York, be at Freddie Hubbard's house every Saturday morning, practicing with him. He'd show me things and we'd hang out. I'd go to his gigs. And every Sunday morning, I'd be at Lee Morgan's house and he'd show me things. Then I'd go back to medical school every day, during the day, and practice trumpet every night."

Other influences included Booker Little, Clifford Brown and Woody Shaw. "I heard others, like the great Kenny Dorham, but they didn't touch me as deeply," he says.

After school, it was back to the Bay area for his medical internship and residency - and the break that thrust him fully into music. It was a weeklong gig with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band that led to a three-year job. "That changed my life," says Henderson.

The Mwandishi association lasted from 1970-73.

"When I was playing with Herbie Hancock, we weren't making a lot of money. Everybody in the band got $300 a week, and had to pay your own hotel, and your bills at home," he says. "It was good money for that time, but it wouldn't work now. That's why Herbie had to disband the band. He wasn't even getting paid. He was going into his royalties, his savings that he built up. He was in debt $30,000, and I think I was in debt about $12,000 just to stay in the band. We didn't even think about that. He had to make a change to recoup his financial status. That's why he went to the Headhunters and became a little more commercial."

Henderson had his other career to help bring in the cash.

"I did practice medicine from 1975 to 1985 in San Francisco, part time. About four hours a day. I worked at a small clinic. The head doctor knew I was into music and he hired me with the stipulation that whenever I get tours I can go and come as I please. They would even pay me when I was gone. It was lovely," he recalled. "I just wanted to play music. But I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd ever have a chance to play with the big guys."

He was also certified to practice psychiatry and even did a residency in that field, but Henderson never practiced it. "I couldn't go off on a tour with a psychiatric patient hanging, you know? 'I'll be back in a month. Hold tight,'" he chuckled.

After touring with Hancock, doors were opened. Henderson joined Art Blakey and also got to play with Dexter Gordon, Roy Haynes, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner. "That's how the heritage goes. You play with one of the greats, then you get acknowledged by all the other greats that your credentials must be in order. That opened the door for everything else that happened to me. It's been wonderful."

Henderson also didn't struggle like some musicians coming up. Things seemed to fall into place, but that's not to say he didn't work extremely hard on his instrument. The fortuitous journey up the ladder is not lost on this artist.

"I really didn't have to come up through the ranks. I was more or less picked up by my bootstraps and pulled up to a high echelon. Just by playing with people like Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, Julian Priester, in that Mwandishi group, it's invaluable. Rather than going to jam sessions and struggling and just sitting in a couple tunes. My development went in leaps and bounds because that particular band worked for three and a half years, about 10 months a year. So it was like a wormhole in evolution.

"They had a club in San Francisco called the Keystone Corner. When name groups came in like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson would come through town, they would always hire me. So I didn't have to come to New York. I was playing with everybody I wanted anyway. I had my cake and ate it."

"When that club closed, it kind of dried up in San Francisco, so I moved back to New York where my mother was at the time. And here I am now. I really haven't practiced medicine in 13 years. I just came here to play music."

Being a doctor did have its rewards, however. It gave him the ability to afford some perks, like his penchant for Ferraris that he adopted from Miles Davis. It also accorded him the ability to joust a bit more with his mentor.

"Because of [Miles], I got six of them. When I was practicing medicine out in California I had three at one time, different models. But in those days, a brand new Ferrari was just $12,000. But now it's $200,000, it's ridiculous. I sold all those." The last two he sold for $10,000, only to have their value skyrocket to $1 million after Enzo Ferrari died, Henderson says. He still owns a 1975 model.

"Miles never said anything to me," says Henderson. "But once I parked mine right behind his in California. He gets out and looks back at me and says, 'Oh that's cute.' I said "cute?' [laughter] He asked who bought it for me, my stepfather? I said 'Did he buy yours?' Then he just chuckled. [laughter] I had fun."

Henderson has no regrets giving up medicine. In fact, there are aspects of the business side of being a doctor that are more annoying to Henderson that the business side of the music world.

"That old adage, 'Physician heal thyself.' This is what heals me. Playing music. It's what makes me well. How can I help somebody else if I'm not well?

"They're both a wonderful profession and I did both. I still can. But I just choose to play music. At this point in life, I don't ever see myself going back and opening a practice in medicine at 62 years old. Nowadays it's so difficult to practice medicine. Every patient that comes in is looking to sue you. You don't get paid from the state if you're doing Medicaid or Medicare, or whatever state programs. They always want to challenge you to get paid. Some of the guys I went to school with are paying $100,000 a year for malpractice insurance. That's too much pressure. I like what I do now."

Like Hancock and others in the 1970s, making fusion albums was also lucrative for Henderson.

" I did those fusion albums that are being re-released now. Ironically, some of the fusion things I did in the mid-70s, — two records for Blue Note [ Heritage and Sunburst ] and three for Capitol [ Mahal, Inside Out and Comin' Thru ] - they're hits even to this day in England. It's almost like a star over there playing the fusion stuff. Even now, the younger generation kids grew up on that and they keep saying to me, 'Can you play "Prance On."' Those old fusion things were during the disco era. It was representative of me, but the producer put me in that context. It really paid good money. These companies paid big money then to the artists. They don't do that any more.

"It's funny the way that particular hit came out. The disc jockeys in England made a mistake and played a 33 rpm vinyl on the radio at 45 rpm speed. And it sounded sorry to me. But think about it in the context of a disco and it was right in the pocket," he says with a chuckle.

"That's how I got very well known in England. I went there last year and the year before that. They have these young fusion bands and they studied the record note for note. Herbie Hancock's solo and everything. It sounds just like the record. It's all music. A lot of people criticized Herbie Hancock when he started doing that. It's just expanding his musical vocabulary, rather than just playing - quote, unquote bebop, cool jazz. It pigeon-hole's you. I want to learn as many idioms as I possibly can."

As for today's music scene, Henderson sees the difficulties jazz musicians face, but he's getting by. The new CD could be a big boost, based on the good notices it has received from critics and people in the business.

"I've been making a fair living," he says. "I travel a lot to Europe just by myself and play with the people over there. That's much more cost effective than trying to bring a band over. And there are good musicians all around the world. Joe Henderson was telling me that for years. He did that and that's how he made the bulk of his money, by traveling all over Europe, different countries, playing the festivals and stuff, but with European musicians.

"In fact this summer I go to France at the end of June, come back for about a week or 10 days, then go back to France and play the festivals in France, and then Austria, until the end of the summer. But you have to build up a name over an amount of time for them to even think about bringing you over. If it wasn't for that, just being around New York , getting $50 or $75 a night in these little clubs, it would be hard to make a living."

Henderson hasn't toured much yet in support of the CD. If he does, expect him to hire exactly whom he wants in order to make the music sound good, not "name" people. He says he turned down a gig recently because Sony wanted certain people to play with him. "I said 'You play the trumpet then. Put your name on it. I'm not going to do that. I don't have to.' And I hung up the phone. The money would have been nice, but they weren't paying that much money, to tell you the truth. If I did that, I would have no respect. I'm sure they respect me a little more now."

"I'm not just going to be a pawn in the game. Not now. Music is too important to me, just to use anybody they want, then the music comes out sad, then I have to live with it. If it comes out sad, at least I have the people I want on it. Then I can live with it a little better," he says.

As it stands, at least in New York, it may depend on the sales figures for So What> as to whether gigs start flowing in.

"Hopefully, it does well. People don't want to give you gigs, even around New York, unless you have a commodity or a company behind you. It's only been out about a month and a half now, so we have to see how it does. Unfortunately, I don't have any gig for my particular band, as such. However I just did a gig at a club called Smoke here, a record release party. I used Dave Kikoski and Ed Howard with Billy Drummond, a drummer. It was representative of the album. Just a quartet.

"Music and the music business has changed. Now in order to travel , the club owners want a big name in order to make their money. It's all about economics. There used to be a circuit. You could work your way across the country - Cleveland, Dayton, Ohio, Denver - work your way across. There's no circuit anymore, so you have to make big jumps by air, to take a band. Airfare eats up all the budget. It's very difficult unless you're a super star with a big management company or somebody behind you, record company support or tour support. And I don't have that. Yet. Hopefully, things will get better."

As he seems to have done all his life, Henderson keeps everything in perspective.

"I'm not complaining. It could be worse," he says with a grin.


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