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.