James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson (December 18, 1897 – December 29, 1952) was an American pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, important in the development of big bandjazz and swing music. He was one of the most prolific black musical arrangers and, along with Duke Ellington, is considered one of the most influential arrangers and bandleaders in jazz history. Henderson’s influence was vast. He helped bridge the gap between the Dixieland and the swing eras. He was often known as “Smack” Henderson (because of smacking sounds he made with his lips).
James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1897. He grew up in a middle-class African-American family. His father, Fletcher Hamilton Henderson (1857–1943), was the principal of the nearby Howard Normal Randolph School from 1880 until 1942. His home, now known as the Fletcher Henderson House, is a historic site. His mother, a teacher, taught him and his brother Horace to play the piano. He began lessons by the age of six. His father would occasionally lock Fletcher in his room to practice for hours. By age 13, Henderson possessed a keen ability to read music and sense pitch. He pursued the studies with his mother and further engaged himself in lessons on European art.
Although a talented musician, Henderson decided to dedicate himself to math and science. At age 18 he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and changed his name to Fletcher Henderson, giving up James, his grandfather’s name. He attended Atlanta University (where he was a member of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha) and graduated in 1920 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics. After graduation, he moved to New York City with the intention of attending Columbia University for a master’s degree in chemistry, but there is no evidence that he actually enrolled. He did get a part-time job as a lab assistant in a downtown Manhattan chemistry firm, but this only lasted a year.
In New York City, Henderson shared an apartment with a pianist who worked as a musician in a riverboat orchestra. When his roommate was too sick to perform, Henderson took his place, which soon gave him a job as a full-time replacement. In the fall of 1920 he found work as a song demonstrator with the Pace and Handy Music Co. Henderson now found that music would be more profitable than chemistry and left his job as a lab chemist to begin a life in music. When Pace left the company to start Black Swan Records, he took Henderson with him to be musical director, a job which lasted from 1921-1923. From 1920-1923, he primarily played piano accompaniment for blues singers. Henderson toured with the Black Swan Troubadours featuring Ethel Waters from October 1921 to July 1922. After hearing Louis Armstrong in New Orleans while on tour in April 1922, Henderson sent him an offer, but Armstrong refused because Henderson would not hire Zutty Singleton as well.
His activities up to the end of 1923 were mainly recording dates for Black Swan and other labels. His band at this point was only a pick-up unit for recordings, not a regular working band. In January 1924 the recording band became the house band at the Club Alabam at 216 W. 44th St. Despite many erroneous publications indicating otherwise, this 1924 band was Henderson’s first working band.
In July 1924 the band began a brief engagement at the Roseland Ballroom. Although only meant to stay for a few months, the band was brought back for the autumn season. Henderson called on the 23-year-old cornetist Louis Armstrong for a second time to join the band. Henderson’s offer on October 13, 1924 made history when the Henderson band began their re-engagement at Roseland with Armstrong now in the orchestra. Quickly the band became known as the best African-American band in New York. By late 1924 the arrangements by Don Redman were featuring more solo work. In addition to adding hot solos to arrangements, Redman arranged Armstrong’s repertoire with the King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, such as turning “Dippermouth Blues” into “Sugar Foot Stomp.” Armstrong played in the band for only a year because he could not grow accustomed to the arrangements and to the “pretension” of the other band members. Despite this, his influence on the Henderson band and all jazz during this time cannot be overstated. Through his hot solos, knowledge of jazz repertoire, and introduction of clarinetist Buster Bailey to the band, Armstrong turned Henderson’s Orchestra into a jazz band.
Henderson’s band boasted the formidable arranging talents of Don Redman. After Redman’s departure from the band in 1927, Henderson took on some of the arranging, but Benny Carter was Redman’s replacement as saxophone player and arranger from 1930–31, and Henderson also bought scores from freelance musicians (including John Nesbitt from McKinney’s Cotton Pickers). Henderson developed his arranging skills from 1931 to the mid-1930s.
Henderson, along with Don Redman, established the formula for swing music. The two broke the band into sections (sax section, trumpet section, etc). These sections worked together to create a unique sound. Sometimes, the sections would play in call-and-response style, and at other times one section would play supporting riffs behind the other. Swing, its popularity spanning over a decade, was the most fashionable form of jazz ever in the United States.
Henderson was also responsible for bringing Louis Armstrong from Chicago to New York in October 1924, thus flipping the focal point of jazz in the history of the United States (although Armstrong left the band in November 1925 and returned to Chicago).
Henderson also 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.
A museum is being established in his memory in Cuthbert, Georgia.
Henderson differed from other musicians in his time. He made the idea of playing jazz exclusively popular to ambitious, young, black musicians. He made it financially stable and a way to seize cultural power during the time. Henderson was genuine when it came to the appearance of the band. He was all for making an impact on the era. Henderson would intently see to it that each member had a clean-shaven face, a tuxedo, and polished shoes. It was recorded that he would do this before every performance, especially ones in predominantly white communities, such as Times Square. Henderson created a band that was capable of playing dance music and complex arrangements. Louis Metcalf said, “The sight of Fletcher Henderson’s men playing behind music stands brought on a learning-to-read-music kick in Harlem which hadn’t cared before it. There were two years of real concentration. Everybody greeted you with ‘How’s studying?'”