Sun Ra and Benny Goodman are worlds apart in the vast landscape of jazz history and yet they have a common link in Fletcher Henderson. Goodman would rise to great fame and claim the title "The King of Swing" by employing Henderson to write arrangements for his band. Sun Ra, who worked primarily as an arranger in his early career, was influenced by Henderson in his formative years as a composer/arranger and worked for Henderson as such in the 1940s. That influence would hold sway over the rest of his life, even as Ra and his Arkestra traveled the spaceways, the specter of Henderson was always with them. From the hot dance bands of the early 1920s, to jazz bands of the late '20s and on into the emergence of the big band swing craze of the mid '30s and beyond, Fletcher Henderson's arrangements would dominate and all others would turn an ear in his direction.
The well-educated Henderson graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 and soon after moved to New York City to pursue a master's degree in chemistry. As we all know, music always wins and Henderson ditched his master's work in favor of tickling the ivories. He jobbed as recording director for the Black Swan label in the early '20s, as well as providing piano accompaniment for various blues singers. By 1922 he had formed his own band and in short order they were one of the hottest dance bands in town. For the next seven years his bands would feature a revolving roster of future jazz legends. His biographer Jeffrey Magee writes, "In Henderson’s prime, the only other comparable group of stars performing in public at such a consistently high level was the New York Yankees.” Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge, Buster Bailey, Benny Carter, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, and Dexter Gordon are but a few of the notable names in these lineups.
Henderson's saxophonist, Don Redman, was also an important figure in these formations from 1922 to 1927 and his skills as an arranger are top notch in early jazz. Biographer Magee states, “For Redman, a piece of sheet music was not a road map but a playground or a puzzle whose parts could be altered, extended, truncated, and otherwise rearranged at will.” The formidable duo of Henderson and Redman would do much to shape the big band jazz sound of the late '20s and the ensuing craze for swing music coming out of the depression era. Evidence of their popularity and work ethic (and, of course, the desire to make some scratch) is reflected in the large amount of record labels they recorded for during their peak. You can find records by Henderson on Vocalion, Paramount, Columbia, Olympic, Ajax, Pathe, Perfect, Edison, Emerson, Brunswick, Banner, Oriole, Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Melotone, Perfect, Oriole, Victor, and Decca. Henderson completists have their work cut out for them.
Growing up with cakewalks, ragtime, foxtrots, and tangos Henderson came of age when jazz was nascent and he left a lasting imprint on its form. When listening to Henderson's recordings now, they may sound quaint and old-fashioned (for some, this is a large part of the appeal), yet he must be regarded and regaled as one of the prime architects of early jazz ensemble playing and the swing band sound.
Stream or download a whole mess of Fletcher Henderson here.