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Fletcher Henderson (Cuthbert (Georgia), December 18, 1897 – New York, December 28, 1952). Pianist and American arranger, was a key musician for the development of the “big band” (grand orchestra). Henderson came from a wealthy family: his mother was a piano teacher and started him on the instrument. His father and brother were also musicians. Until 1920, his only musical interest was classical music.
In 1920, he moved to New York to finish his chemistry studies and once there, get a job as a chemist. However, due to being black he does not get a job and starts working as a musician on a Hudson River boat. He finally gets a job at the music publishing company “Pace Handy Music Company” and ends up being the musical director of the company “Black Swan”.
He toured with the singer Ethel Waters in the summer of 1921 and on the way back he recorded on the piano with Bessie Smith. In 1924 he already had a great reputation as a musician and dared to take the step of forming a stable band. Thus arose the “Fletcher Henderson Orchestra” whose first soloists were: Joe Smith to the cornet, Don Redman to the alto sax, and a young man named Coleman Hawkins to the tenor sax. A small contract with the Alabam club facilitated the start of the orchestra. In 1924, Henderson got an important contract in the famous “Roseland Ballroom”. Its owners smelled the growing interest of the public in the new black music that was beginning to germinate.
Fletcher Henderson brought Louis Armstrong from Chicago, who at that time was just a young cornetist who had played with the band of maestro King Oliver. Louis Armstrong would only remain with Henderson until the end of 1925, but it would be enough time to revolutionize Henderson’s musical concept.
The brain of the orchestra was Don Redman, a musician who developed for the first time fundamental concepts for big bands such as sectional orchestration, by dividing the melodic lines between the metals and the woods. No less important was his work on the concept of riff and the subsequent establishment of what would be the basic formation of a Big Band: 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, 4 woods (saxophones / clarinets) and the rhythm section with piano, guitar (or banjo) double bass (or tuba) and drums. With Redman and Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra became the first major big band in history.
In 1927, the orchestra no longer had Armstrong and Redman left the orchestra to go with the “McKinney’s Cotton Pickers” orchestra in Detroit. A fatal Henderson car accident affected the development of the orchestra in such a way that it was forced to temporarily dissolve it.
The time of Swing
In 1928 a contract at the club “Connie’s” in New York allowed Fletcher to regroup some of his musicians and rebuild the orchestra. Thus it remained, between successes and errors until 1933, year in which a revitalization of the same takes place with the incorporation of the trumpeter, Henry “Red” Allen and the trombonista Dickie Wells.
At that time, the orchestra offers a clear preview of what, years later, will explode with the name of Swing. In the winter of 1934, the band dissolved again due to economic problems and the departure of the saxophonist star Coleman Hawkins towards Europe. Henderson worked as an arranger in Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
In 1936, Henderson returned to organize a powerful group with figures such as Chu Berry on tenor sax, Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Sid Catlett on drums. With this training he achieved greater commercial achievements but once again he did not manage to make the success profitable.
During the 1940s he reorganized his big band to play in the Roseland and Savoy shows on certain occasions. In 1939 he worked as an arranger for the Big Band of Benny Goodman and did it again for a brief period of time in 1947. He again toured with Ethel Waters during 1948-1949. In 1950 he formed a jazz sextet.
Fletcher Henderson died in the middle of general disinterest for his music. Paradoxically, the most important record collection made about Henderson’s work is entitled “A Study on Frustration” (Columbia 1962). His texts describe the musical and vital trajectory of a musician who was a catalyst of fundamental findings in the evolution of the Big Band, but who was unable to make them profitable throughout his career. His compositions, his music, and his arrangements contributed to the success of Benny Goodman, crowned then by the public and critics as “The King of Swing” while he was unable to financially support his own orchestra.
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