Eddie Henderson: Healing with Music
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?