James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. (December 18, 1897 – December 29, 1952) was an American pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, important in the development of big band jazz and swing music. His was one of the most prolific black orchestras and his influence was vast. He was often known as “Smack” Henderson (apparently named due to his college baseball hitting skills).
Fletcher Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia. He attended Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated in 1920. After graduation, he moved to New York City to attend Columbia University for a master’s degree in chemistry. However, he found his job prospects in chemistry to be very restricted due to his race, and turned to music for a living.
He was recording director for the fledgling Black Swan label from 1921-1923. Throughout the early and mid 1920s, Henderson provided solo piano accompanyment for many blues singers. In 1922 he formed his own band, which was resident first at the Club Alabam then at the Roseland Ballroom, and quickly became known as the best African-American band in New York. For a time his ideas of arrangement were heavily influenced by those of Paul Whiteman, but when Louis Armstrong joined his orchestra in 1924 Henderson realized there could be a much richer potential for jazz band orchestration. Henderson’s band also boasted the formidable arranging talents of Don Redman (from 1922 to 1927). During the 1920s and very early 1930s, Henderson actually wrote few, if any, arrangements; most of his recordings were arranged by Redman (c. 1923-1927) or Benny Carter (after 1927-c. 1931). As an arranger, Henderson came into his own in the mid-1930s.
His band circa 1925 included Howard Scott, Coleman Hawkins (who started with Henderson in 1923 playing the low tuba parts on bass saxophone and quickly moved to tenor and a leading solo role), Louis Armstrong, Charlie Dixon, Kaiser Marshall, Buster Bailey, Elmer Chambers, Charlie Green, Ralph Escudero and Don Redman.
In 1925, along with fellow composer Henry Troy, he wrote “Gin House Blues“, recorded by Bessie Smith and Nina Simone amongst others. He also wrote the very popular jazz composition “Soft Winds” among others.
Henderson recorded extensively in the 1920s for numerous labels, including:
- Plaza Records (Banner, Oriole, and the other Plaza labels)
From 1925-1930, he primarily recorded for Columbia and Brunswick/Vocalion under his own name as well as recording a series of acoustic recordings under the name The Dixie Stompers for Columbia’s Harmony and associated dime store labels (Diva and Velvet Tone). During the 1930s, he recorded for Columbia, Crown (as “Connie’s Inn Orchestra”), ARC (Melotone, Perfect, Oriole, etc.), Victor, Vocalion and Decca.
At one time or another, in addition to Armstrong, lead trumpeters included Henry “Red” Allen, Joe Smith, Rex Stewart, Tommy Ladnier, Doc Cheatham and Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Lead saxophonists included Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, Benny Carter and Chu Berry. Sun Ra also worked as an arranger during the 1940s during Henderson’s engagement at the Club DeLisa in Chicago. Sun Ra himself said that on first hearing Henderson’s orchestra as a teenager he assumed that they must be angels because no human could produce such beautiful music.
Beginning in the early 1930s, Fletcher’s piano-playing younger brother, Horace Henderson contributed to the arrangements of the band. At different times in Horace’s career he was Billie Holiday’s and Lena Horne’s pianist. Later he led a band of his own that also received critical acclaim.
Although Fletcher’s band was very popular, he had little success managing the band. But much of his lack of recognition outside of Harlem had to do more with the times in which he lived. However, owing to the fact that many of Henderson’s records (Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, Victor and those issued on the many of the dime store labels) still turn up at junk stores, flea markets, collectors stores and on eBay and on private record auctions, there’s no denying how popular his band was, regardless of his management difficulties.
After about 1931, he started arranging and his arrangements became influential. In addition to his own band he arranged for several other bands, including those of Teddy Hill, Isham Jones, and most famously, Benny Goodman. Henderson’s wife, Leora, said that a major turning point in his life was an auto accident which occurred in 1928. Henderson’s shoulder was injured and he apparently sustained a concussion. Leora claimed that Fletcher was never the same, and that after this point he lost his ambition and became careless. According to Leora, the accident was a major cause of Henderson’s diminishing success. She claims that John Hammond and Benny Goodman arranged to buy Henderson’s arrangements as a way to support Henderson, and points out that Goodman always gave Henderson credit for the arrangements and said that the Henderson band played them better than the Goodman band. In addition, Goodman and Hammond arranged broadcasts and recordings to benefit Henderson when he was ill.
Although Henderson’s music was popular, his band began to fold with the 1929 stock market crash. The loss of financial stability resulted in the selling of many arrangements from his songbooks to the later-to-be-acclaimed “King of Swing” Benny Goodman.
In 1934, Goodman’s Orchestra was selected as a house band for the “Let’s Dance” radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some Jazz charts from Henderson. Many of Goodman’s hits from the swing era were played by Henderson and his own band in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In fact they usually were head arrangements that Fletcher transcribed from his own records and then sold to Goodman.
In 1939, Henderson disbanded his own band and joined Goodman’s, first as both pianist and arranger and then working full-time as the staff arranger. He reformed bands of his own several times in the 1940s, toured with Ethel Waters again in 1948-1949. Henderson suffered a stroke in 1950 resulting in partial paralysis that ended his days as a pianist. He died in New York City in 1952.