The bands Fletcher Henderson led in the 1920s and 1930s were vitally significant incubators of new developments in jazz. Henderson played a key role in bringing improvisatory jazz styles from New Orleans and other areas of the country to New York, where they merged with a dance-band tradition that relied heavily on arrangements written out in musical notation. The new music that developed at Henderson's hands and under his mentorship allowed the composer's art to flourish, yet left room for the improvisatory talents of individual jazz soloistsstriking a balance that has influenced jazz ever since.
Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, on December 18, 1897, James Fletcher Henderson enjoyed the best education available, his father was a teacher and a school principal, and both his parents played the piano. Henderson started piano studies at age six, but it was the classical compositions of Europe that he was taught; his parents frowned upon vernacular or down- home black traditions. He attended prep school in Atlanta and then moved on to Atlanta University, graduating in 1920 with a degree in chemistry.
Henderson moved north in 1920 hoping for a career as a research chemist, but the best he could do was a job as a lab assistant. His musical talents turned out to be more useful when he was hired the following year by the Pace & Handy music publishing firm and then by the new black-oriented Black Swan record label. His classical background and music-notation skills attracted notice at Black Swan, and when the company prepared for a national tour by its prime property, blues vocalist Ethel Waters, Henderson became the leader of her backing group.
The experience gave Henderson an education in African- American rhythms. Then, as he led bands in various New York venues in the early 1920s, he proved to have a keen ear for emerging solo talents. His ten-piece band in 1923 included saxophonists Don Redman and Coleman Hawkins, and by the following year, when he began a 12-year residence at New York's Roseland Ballroom, the band had grown to 16 players. One of them was a recent arrival from New Orleans, a cornet player named Louis Armstrong who remained with Henderson for 14 months.
With Redman writing the band's arrangements and all the instrumentalists in the band responding in inspired ways to Armstrong's innovations as a jazz soloist, Henderson's band evolved into one of the top ensembles in the country. With Armstrong leading the way, the band recorded some of its best known works, including "Copenhagen," "Go 'Long Mule," "Shanghai Shuffle" and the band's first hit, "Sugar Foot Stomp." Redman's arrangements and Henderson's own, which he began to write after Redman left to form his own band in 1927, contained the features familiar to anyone who has ever heard a classic swing recording: sectional interplay between brasses and reeds, a smooth sheen that did not foreclose a propulsive dance-floor energy, and well- conceived interludes that called upon the improvisatory skills and styles of individual players. Another important contributor to the Henderson sound was saxophonist Benny Carter, in whose arrangements the Henderson band became a natural extension of his own saxophone playing.