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Eddie Henderson: Polishing The Mirror of Truth

Eddie Henderson: Polishing The Mirror of Truth

Courtesy Steven Roby

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When a jazz musician rolls into Denver for a performance, it's not often that a documentary film and immersive art exhibition await them. But jazz great Eddie Henderson is no ordinary musician, nor has he led an ordinary life.

A few hours before Henderson played a two-show set at Denver's premier jazz venue, Dazzle, an exhibit called Time and Spaces: The Life of Eddie Henderson opened to the public at the CU Denver Experience Gallery in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It features archival photos, one of Henderson's trumpets and memorabilia, including a pair of skates he wore as a professional figure skater.

There was also a room to view a 20-minute clip of the documentary Dr. Eddie Henderson: Uncommon Genius. The film examines the 83-year-old musician's life, including how he overcame racial barriers and broke into fields that underrepresented Black men. In the 1960s, he became a professional figure skater and a practicing medical doctor. The documentary by Michelle Carpenter will screen at film festivals nationwide and air on PBS in February, 2024.

Mark Rabideau, a tenured professor of music at Colorado University and a good friend to Henderson, had a big part in organizing this multifaceted tribute; in fact, he assisted me with arranging this interview with Henderson.

The following is an edited version of my interview with Dr. Henderson. Listen to the Backstage Jazz podcast to hear the full version.

All About Jazz: Can you share some memorable moments or experiences working with artists like Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey or others?

Eddie Henderson: Absolutely. Number one is Herbie Hancock. That was my first gig of any stature where I played with musicians on such a high level. And I was just in awe of playing with those guys. It was just a wonderful experience. It was something that really opened the door for me to continue my career up to the present time.

I'm indebted to that experience in my life. And in terms of my stint with Art Blakey, that happened right after Herbie Hancock. Art Blakey called me, and because I played with Herbie Hancock, all my other heroes, people like McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Max Welch, all hired me because I played with Herbie.

But that was a significant springboard to play with other people. And in terms of Blakey, that was an invaluable experience. [Working with] Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was like the postgraduate school of initiation, for young musicians to come and learn the craft because he literally taught you how to play melodies and, as he said, "It makes the notes become alive, a living presence," you know.

It's not just a note. It's a real thing, so when you make the melody come alive, after that, everything [else] takes place. Then he taught you how to build. He told a story, "It's like you open a book, the beginning, you're in the middle of the book, you reach the climax. And then the end."

That's how he looked at a solo. And he said, "When you're finished with your solo, get out of there!"

AAJ: Is there a specific project or album that holds a special place in your heart?

EH: Mwandishi (Warner Brothers Records, 1971) was the first album I ever did with Herbie Hancock and the first time I recorded. That session was just like a spiritual experience, just looking around and realizing I was playing with these guys, and the music was just divine.

And it really changed my whole life. Because up to that point, I was playing local gigs around San Francisco. And I thought that was what I would do for the rest of my life. And it just elevated me to a point: it was undeniable, no doubt in my mind. It's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I got that gig just by a fluke accident. Johnny Coles was the original trumpet player with Herbie Hancock before me. He was on a sabbatical with Ray Charles for six months. So, Herbie needed a trumpet player for one week. After that one week was over, I was just ecstatic, and they were gonna go back to New York. I was heartbroken.

I told [drummer] Billy Hart that I would really like to stay in this band. He said, 'Well, go propose it to Herbie." So I went to Herbie, and he said, "But you're a doctor." I said, "To hell with that. I will always be a doctor. I have my license."

So, he thought for about two to three seconds. He just said, "Alright, you're in the band." And that changed everything. The whole trajectory for the rest of my life.

AAJ: As a trumpeter, are there any specific techniques or approaches you've developed that define your playing style?

EH: In terms of playing jazz, yes. My first exposure to jazz that really touched my musical being was listening to Miles Davis.

I tried to emulate or play just like him with the records, and Miles told me I knew his style, concept, sound and everything. He said, why don't I stop trying to imitate him? I said because my parents won't let me. When Miles was there at my parents' house. My parents had me play for him with the records for two weeks.

I played along with Miles' Sketches of Spain (Columbia Records, 1960). Miles told me, "You sound good, but that's me." So, a year later, he returned to town and stayed at my parent's house. But in that interim, I discovered that the guy he copied, his hero, was Freddie Webster, who not many people know because he only recorded eight bars of solo on a Dinah Washington album. That was Miles' hero, who he copied and emulated.

So, when Miles returned a year later and knocked on the door, I answered it. He said, "Are you still trying to sound like me?" I said, "You mean Freddie Webster?" The look on Miles' face... his jaw dropped to the floor. He smiled, chuckled, and whispered in my ear (imitating his raspy voice), "Everybody's a thief. I just made a short-term loan." I asked Miles, "How do you play? What do you think about?" He said, "Learn as many licks as possible and then scotch tape them together. When people ask me about my style, I say, "My style? It's just licks I've scotch-taped together or stolen from people who came before me." It's just a reflection of me; that's my style. And that's what Miles Davis' style is. He didn't just drop out of the sky abstractly; he scotch-taped the heroes that came before him.

AAJ: Looking back on your accomplished career, what achievements are you most proud of and why?

EH: Well, just the fact that I've had the opportunity to play with all my heroes, and what an honor it was to have been able to play with them. Each one of those different building blocks of heroes I played with was a learning experience for me.

People say, "Oh, well, you've really made it now." But right now, I feel like I'm just a beginner, you know? You never really make it; you always wanna polish the mirror of truth because it will get dusty if you don't polish it.

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