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."