Photo of Fletcher Henderson courtesy of Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo
By Cynthia Shearer
Jazz owes its origins to the bump and grind of turn-of-the-century brothels and the colored waif orphanages of the South’s great cities, but where is the wellspring of swing? If you say Chicago, the answer is no. Benny Goodman would be the first to tell you so.
The fountainhead of swing, children, is a little white frame house with a tin roof, on the black side of the tracks in Cuthbert, a red-dirt Georgia cotton-gin town. This is where they used to lock Fletcher Henderson in the parlor with a piano, beginning about 1903 when he was six. If he didn’t practice, he got whipped. He was a sweet-faced child, with his mother’s light skin and his father’s old eyes. Sometimes the house grew quiet and Fletcher curled up on the floor to take a nap. Even at an early age, he showed signs of what the great white jazz mahout John Hammond would one day call “lassitude.”
Fletcher was born with the burden of perfect pitch. Whatever the boy heard, he heard as music. A commotion of younger siblings with the chickens in a swept-earth yard. An arpeggio of rose thorns scraping on the mailbox. A cadence of mule-trot through an open window. Henderson’s parents were the salt of the earth and the sugar, too, but they decreed there would be no music under their roof on Andrew Street that did not dignify the lives of black people. No blues, no degrading coon songs, no ham fat.
The Henderson family piano is a venerable old beauty, now enshrined in the Amistad Collection in New Orleans. It is carved mahogany, an upright model with brass pedals, purchased from Phillips and Crew on Peachtree Street in Atlanta for $275, payable in monthly installments of $10. Professor F. H. Henderson, Fletcher’s father, signed that contract on September 25, 1906, the day after the Atlanta Race Riot, when poor whites attacked, burned, and looted middle-class black neighborhoods and businesses. The contract allowed Fletcher’s schoolmaster father to skip the payments in summers, when he had no salary coming in. Professor Henderson’s credo was “I never drink, smoke, or dissipate in any manner,” but he wagered all he owned for that piano. He mortgaged his house to pay off the piano note. Music would be the mighty fortress to keep his children safe.
Nobody had a clue that in the future, Fletcher Henderson’s raids against the precepts of ragtime and “sweet” white dance music would someday make everybody tap their toes, from the starched-shirt demagogues down south, who hired him to play their cotton carnivals, to the bootleggers in bulletproof Duesenbergs up north, who hired him to play in their plantation-themed dens of iniquity, to most of our great-gartered grandmothers, packing flasks in Prohibition speakeasies or shimmying in secret along to the radio.
Professor F. H. Henderson had been born a slave. By the time Fletcher came along, his father was a towering figure in Negro education in Georgia, the principal and Latin master of the Howard Normal School, a model Negro training institute. Fletcher’s grandfather, James Henderson, also an emancipated slave, had fought unsuccessfully in the South Carolina legislature for written contracts and a living wage for black men. He had witnessed widespread violence by whites and assassinations of blacks who had been elected to public offices in Newberry County in 1868.
The Cuthbert of Fletcher Henderson’s youth lynched black men at a rate slightly higher than other Georgia towns, at a time when Georgia was topping the lists they were keeping over at Tuskegee. Professor Henderson was a deacon at the Payne Chapel A.M.E. church, which stood like a sentry tower by the railroad tracks, the line of demarcation between black Cuthbert and the sometimes volatile whites on the other side. His house was across the street from the church. He apparently served as a mediator between the white and black communities.
When Fletcher was born in 1897, people were still talking about a manhunt the year before and the men who were lynched by mistake. When Fletcher was nine, someone tried to burn down his father’s school a few days before a “private” hanging of a black man named Will Price, convicted of the rape of a white girl. In 1909, when Fletcher was eleven, a black man named Albert Reese was taken forcibly from the Cuthbert jail by a masked mob of fifteen “unknown parties” and hung from a pine tree west of town, right where the Central Railroad crossed the “public road,” within sight of the Payne Chapel A.M.E. church, or a few hundred yards over on what is now U.S. Highway 82.
If you push one pin into a map for every lynching in Fletcher Henderson’s corner of Georgia during his childhood and youth, it looks like the furies left behind a dark spray of buckshot. We get some hints about those times for the Henderson family in the professor’s obituary in the Atlanta Daily World many years later: “His sober judgment and influence saved many a Negro from the lynch noose.”
In 1911, the family put thirteen-year-old Fletcher on a train to attend high school in the city. For eight years, Atlanta University would be his safe harbor. The plan was not foolproof: in late September 1916, a few days before Fletcher’s freshman year started at the university, two more black men were accused of murder and promptly lynched without trial in Cuthbert, just on the other side of the tracks from the Hendersons’ home and church.
At Atlanta, Fletcher Henderson had freedoms that could get him in serious trouble back in Cuthbert. He had white classmates and white teachers, some female. He ate meals with white people. He skipped the music curriculum but studied Greek and elocution. He swept floors to help pay his expenses. He studied chemistry, lettered in baseball and football, was a Big Man on Campus with the ladies, and belonged to Alpha Phi Alpha, W.E.B. Du Bois’s fraternity. He was the university organist.
By 1915, Henderson was taking the train north every summer to play piano at the Broadwater resort in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, owned by one of the white Atlanta University faculty, Miss Annie A. Bowman. She is most likely the attractive dark-haired woman who figures prominently in a remarkable collection of photos in a scrapbook from Fletcher’s college days.
In one snapshot, we see Fletcher as a shy-looking young man in tweeds contemplating seashells from atop a craggy constellation of rocks. In another, he stands on the bow of a docked sailboat, his hand on the mast, holding eye contact with the photographer, possibly the white Miss Bowman herself. Possibly she is the woman in another image wearing a modern white lawn dress, with pearls and heels, with what looks like Fletcher’s shadow in the left foreground. If this is she, then Annie Bowman is one of the unsung heroines of American music history. She gave Fletcher Henderson a place to mix ragtime and Rachmaninoff during some of America’s bloodiest summers, when the bottom-feeder caste of whites down south were getting all liquored up and looting and burning entire black communities, blowing into their whiskey jugs and calling it music.
His senior year in college, Fletcher was introduced to another important influence, Professor Kemper Harreld, a Morehouse College music professor whose specialty was classical composers who cribbed from folk music. Harreld was a striking figure in a woolen coat and bowler hat, the musical director of a traveling racial uplift pageant, The Open Door, a gorgeous, allegorical production using pantomimes, lavish costumes, choirs, and a tiny orchestra, with graduating senior Fletcher Henderson on piano. In the 1919 version of The Open Door, Fletcher played Edward German’s “Torch Dance” paired with the black composer Nathaniel Dett’s “Juba Dance.” Other pieces in Henderson’s Open Door repertoire: Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# Minor,” Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” Delibes’s “Pizzicati,” and Grieg’s “Canon.” Their first performance was in the cavernous Atlanta Auditorium Armory. Then they took the show on the rough roads to Macon and Savannah. In the college yearbook, a classmate wrote that the world would someday know Fletcher Henderson’s name.
After graduation in 1920, Henderson took a train to New York with his diploma in hand, ready to serve humanity in a laboratory. White humanity in New York, it turns out, preferred to be served by black sleeping-car porters, butlers, chauffeurs, bellhops, or musicians on riverboats. No problem: American music became Henderson’s lab and popular songs his experiments. He subbed for a roommate as a pianist on a riverboat, and met his future wife, Leora Meaux, a pretty trumpet player from Louisville. He worked as a song-plugger for W. C. Handy and Harry Pace, an Atlanta University graduate. Whatever blues he’d missed out on in Cuthbert, he got back in spades in that job.
When Pace decamped to start the first all-black recording company, Pace Phonograph Corporation, Fletcher went with him. Their label was Black Swan, and their concept was historic: let black people record and sell their own music without forcing them into commercial hokum stereotypes. Fletcher was going head to head with seasoned white talent hunters and producers at established companies like Okeh and Paramount. By 1921, he was auditioning singers and choosing what and whom Black Swan would record.
In its short life, Black Swan was a source of great pride to American blacks. White record companies didn’t appreciate the competition, and someone put a bomb in the coal order for the Black Swan pressing plant. Records by black opera singers or Marcus Garvey’s pianist didn’t sell well, but those by lissome young female blues chanteuses did. When Fletcher accompanied Ethel Waters on “Down Home Blues” and “Oh Daddy,” Black Swan had a runaway hit, and Waters and Harry Pace made a lot of money. Pace decided to send Waters, Fletcher, and a small orchestra, the Black Swan Troubadours, on an extended tour, beginning late autumn of 1921.
Push one pin into a map for every stop the Black Swan troupe made in the dying days of vaudeville and you see more than a random chitlin’ circuit tour. Early on, Pace sent in a new manager, Lester Walton, whose résumé included management of Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre and a transatlantic voyage on behalf of President Woodrow Wilson to report on the morale of black soldiers fighting in World War I. After stops to support the NAACP’s full-court press to get the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill through Congress, the Black Swan Troubadours made a deep swing into the charred heart of America that was still smoldering from the Red Summer of 1919, when racial violence reached a horrifying peak.
Chicago was a pivotal moment. Walton suddenly announced an extended swing “down south.” Four musicians promptly quit. Ethel Waters made an impassioned dressing-room speech about the moral imperative to carry the music to those who needed it most. Nobody else bailed. Waters schooled Henderson in Harlem stride piano by making him listen to the piano rolls of James P. Johnson.
They played Oklahoma towns like Muskogee and Ardmore, in the wake of the Tulsa Race Riot, when whites had savaged a prosperous black community. Walton’s advance press releases always announced that a few seats would be reserved for whites. It was missionary work. Waters wore a blue pan velvet gown and gold dangling earrings. She smiled reassuringly when she sang her hit songs. Fletcher kept the band from playing too hot, and backed the comedy skits on piano. He was six-foot-two, with hair cropped close to his head. He had never had any burning urge to lead a band, it had just happened.
They played piney-woods towns in Arkansas where survivors of the 1919 Elaine massacre might have fled. They played Paris, Texas, which was christened by the Chicago Defender as the birthplace of burning black people at the stake, most recently the Arthur brothers, one of whom had been a war veteran. But the Black Swan group was treated amicably, and the audience included white people. In Waco, the troupe performed within blocks of the infamous public square where a crowd of 15,000 whites had cheered in 1916 as a mentally deficient Negro boy was tortured and burned alive, his torso dragged through the streets. They played in Austin, where an NAACP field secretary had been beaten to within an inch of his life.
In New Orleans, Ethel Waters and Lester Walton were allowed to enter by the front door at a hotel reception given by whites, but Fletcher and the orchestra had to go in by the “Jim Crow” door. They were invited to play for a local radio station, and Fletcher became possibly the first black bandleader to broadcast on radio. He tried to hire a young local, Louis Armstrong, on the spot, but Armstrong would not leave his drummer. (They would meet again soon.)
Waters later claimed that in Macon, Georgia, local whites threw the body of a lynched boy into the theater lobby shortly before her performance was to start, but this is inaccurate. A body was thrown into the lobby of the Douglass Theater some months after Black Swan passed through. They moved on through Dixie, and scalloped up the Eastern seaboard home to Harlem, and the Black Swan players disbanded by the end of the summer of 1922.
Pace Phonograph was being muscled out of the competition by bigger white-controlled recording companies, and by the mass production of radios. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill died at the hands of Southern senators. Pace folded in 1923, but young Fletcher Henderson had acquired a lifelong love of touring. He had learned how to lure the black public forward with a hint of the same old sorrow wrapped in a bandanna, but to leave behind the gold filigree of clarinets and trumpets, like airfoils they could follow to a better altitude.
Henderson was soon being name-checked in the Phonograph and Talking Machine Weekly as one of the best freelance blues specialists in New York. He had become one of Harlem’s most-booked accompanists for the great blues chanteuses, including Ma Rainey, Lucille Hegamin, Trixie Smith, Clara Smith, and even Bessie Smith, who had suffered rejection at Black Swan. He had a secret composing life, using the pseudonym George Brooks for blues songs that he wrote as if knocking out nursery rhymes. We have “George Brooks” to thank for ten of Bessie Smith’s big numbers.
In January 1924, Henderson took his first band out of Harlem and into Club Alabam, just off Times Square. Its bootlegger owners had remodeled it to make it resemble a Southern plantation. Prohibition New York teemed with these Dixie-themed speakeasies—Kentucky Club, the Black Bottom, the Plantation Club, the Cotton Club—a subtle racism soon to be etched into the American consciousness in Warner Brothers wiseguy films. These were strictly segregated, yet America was enchanted with ham-fat songs about mammy in her bandanna in Alabamy. Henderson’s men had to set up on a bandstand that was a fake plantation house back porch, in front of murals of trees scumbled with Spanish moss. A fake French door with a fanlight said it all: even Northern white people liked to imagine themselves being entertained by plantation darkies freshly convened from the cotton fields, playing for Ole Massa hisself.
Few of Henderson’s young sidemen had ever set foot in Dixie. Most were Great Migration babies whose parents had long since fled the South. Coleman Hawkins was from Topeka. Don Redman was a prodigy out of Harper’s Ferry who could play any instrument put in his hands. Segregation kept them all out of “legit” symphonies or pit orchestras. When Fletcher Henderson and his colleagues squared off with that first all-white audience at Club Alabam, it must have felt somewhat like anthropology, a first encounter with volatile primitives whose reputation for barbarism had preceded them. He answered the moment with equanimity and grace, and wooed the whites forward toward their own evolution with songs like “Teapot Dome Blues,” “After the Storm,” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-time No Time.” As word got around, Henderson became that “hot” Harlem bandleader you could hear without actually having to step foot in Harlem.
When white owners tried to get Henderson to fire Hawkins for refusing to dance with one of the chorus girls, he declined. At first opportunity, he eased the band off the fake plantation porch of Club Alabam, over to the original Roseland Ballroom on Broadway. Roseland had two bandstands, one black, one white. When the white band left to tour, Henderson’s men quietly became the house band by default. This would be home base for Henderson for over a decade. His audiences were white, thousands of them. Radio broadcasts from the ballroom gave him a national reputation. Apparently he worked without a contract at Roseland, cash and carry. He bought a house on Striver’s Row. By 1926 most dance orchestras, black and white, were imitating the Henderson sound: “pyramid” chords, sectional counterpoint, advanced harmonies, flatted fifths. Team racial uplift had gained considerable yardage. No ham fat, no hokum, no jellyroll required.
Henderson loved to graft European orchestral notation onto silly little street songs, to take a single note of melody and fan it out into rich, syncopated color. This required cutthroat sight-reading skills, with a penchant for sudden improvisation. One of his sidemen later compared the Henderson requirement to being able to see around corners. The received wisdom was, if you could cut the mustard in that band, jazz was yours, baby.
Some of Henderson’s best work happened when he would rake the cheap veneer of lyrics right off a trite white Tin Pan Alley song and make it new. He could peel a hurtful racist song down to its studs, then renovate it into a statelier mansion in which a black soul could stand at its full height. While white America was still drunk on ragtime and bogus blackface “coon-shouter” songs, Henderson minimized lyrics and substituted jazz breaks. Louis Armstrong learned the hard way that Henderson didn’t have much respect for scat singing, and he began to pour his whole story into his horn.
If Henderson’s men had something to say, they had to say it with their instruments. This is why those solos often achieved the power of human voice, clarinets bubbling up out of the bass line to exchange witticisms with the trumpets. A tuba would burp along amiably, then suddenly assert its right to pontificate. “Sugarfoot Stomp” (1925) runs like a souped-up Model T with a creaky carburetor, syncopating about a half-hitch too fast. You can hear all the way into the future on that side: a barely containable twenty-three-year-old Louis Armstrong and a twenty-year-old Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, each already in possession of a singular instrumental voice, with Billie Holiday’s dad, Clarence, keeping it all glued together with guitar. The effect is rollicking and wonderfully crunk.
Henderson’s bands could play sweet jazz, but their true love was hot, hard-driving stomps. “Dionysiac heat” is the way one New York critic described the Henderson sound in the Saturday Review. Those old brittle 78s, he said, don’t really capture the “golden seething spirit of a Fletcher Henderson occasion.”
They could also signify well under the white radar. Armstrong brought “Go ’Long, Mule” to Henderson and Don Redman. In their hands, the song is no longer the muddled country marmalade of King Joe Oliver. The woodwinds trill in such high harmony they sound like gnats buzzing around a mule’s head. Those gnats sound suspiciously like the Boswell Sisters, white gals notorious for appropriating black music and parlaying it into fame and fortune.
Listen attentively to Henderson’s 1932 version of the cruelly racist “Underneath a Harlem Moon” and you can hear Hawkins, college-educated out of Topeka, wordlessly substitute nonchalant tenor sax for the white Tin Pan Alley fake nostalgia for “’Ginia hams” and “candy yams,” before trailing off into a derisive, flatulent raspberry. The worst of the original’s offensive lyrics are erased, and W. C. Handy’s daughter Katherine sings what’s left with bite.
Some of Henderson’s recordings are important milestones in American music: “The Gouge of Armor Avenue,” “Wrappin’ It Up,” “Snag It,” “Radio Rhythm,” and a host of others. In 1927, the great silent filmmaker Murnau (Nosferatu) used Henderson’s composition “Tozo!” to symbolize the dangerous allure of the urban future, in a film called Sunrise. Today we most likely encounter Henderson’s music deployed to evoke the past in films like The Razor’s Edge, The English Patient, Road to Perdition, the HBO television series Boardwalk Empire.
For most of the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression, Henderson’s bands were the first turnstile through which many a young black male musician passed, fresh from far-flung American precincts, on the way to his rightful place in jazz iconography: Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Big Charlie Green, Lester Young, Rex Stewart, Red Allen, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams, and a whole pantheon of others. The most obvious case of influence is Benny Goodman, who built his reputation on Henderson’s book and his back, only to be anointed “king of swing” in the perpetual paternity suit that is jazz criticism.
In a glossy promotional photo from 1932, an elegant, lanky Fletcher Henderson stands in the center of a line of black musicians in matching suits and wing tips on a pier in Atlantic City. His arms are folded comfortably across the front of his double-breasted suit, the wind whipping his pants against his long legs. He looks like the Sepia Jay Gatsby, only happy. This iteration of his band was formidable, possibly his greatest ever. The photo scans like a pocket edition of Who’s Who in Jazz: Russell Procope, Coleman Hawkins, Edgar Sampson, Clarence Holiday, Walter Johnson, John Kirby, Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, Rex Stewart, J. C. Higginbotham, and Sandy Williams.
This is the crew that took a stock flood song of the sort meant to be sung operatically by Paul Robeson, “Take Me Away from the River,” and turned it into a wicked “viper jazz” ode to marijuana. Procope’s clarinet percolates like a klezmer hookah, and Hawkins blows a world-weary sax. The menace in that song was not the Mississippi, but a dazzling river of urban motion and light. A couple hours after they recorded it, they gave perfect, gentlemanly accompaniment to white child star Baby Rose Marie as she belted out a little charmer, “Take a Picture of the Moon,” complete with Sophie Tucker–like barrelhouse growls. You would never know, looking at the photograph of the Henderson group on that pier, that 1932 was the beginning of the end.
Trumpet player Rex Stewart’s memoir, Boy Meets Horn, describes the breakup of this phenomenal band in 1933 and Henderson’s unwillingness to confront whites even as they abused and cheated the blacks. The men were usually overbooked and underpaid, sometimes not paid at all. Some nights, the rumor of no pay owing to contractual “infractions” would sweep through the band even as they were performing, so the musicians would fade out into the night one by one, leaving Henderson playing alone. Stewart describes vividly the predatory contracts, the “chicanery and maneuvering,” and the malevolent presence of New York’s notorious “Local 802” union reps backstage, demanding personal kickbacks, threatening to ruin bandleaders who did not comply. “Local 802” was so thoroughly corrupt that testimony from its victims figured prominently in 1934 Congressional hearings on mob infiltration of the American labor force.
The straw that seems to have broken the back of Fletcher Henderson’s last good band was John Hammond himself, who thought nothing of signing contracts committing them to work they’d not been consulted about, then professed puzzlement at their perceived lack of enthusiasm. It’s unfortunate that jazz writers seem to default to Hammond’s mythologizing. Hammond said that Henderson was hindered by his lack of business sense, his mistrust of white men, and his “self-defeating acts of independence.” Rex Stewart said the men quit when, the day after they returned from a harrowing road tour down south, Hammond had booked them to play without pay at a benefit for the legal defense fund of the Scottsboro Boys.
Louis Armstrong’s biographer James Lincoln Collier called Fletcher Henderson a “tragic figure.” Collier reminds us to take into account that peculiar American time when black musicians like Armstrong and Henderson fled the South only to land in a new world “peopled on the one hand by gangsters, who would maim and kill if sufficiently frustrated, and on the other by whites speaking another language and dwelling in offices, hotels, and restaurants, where blacks could not penetrate.”
If Henderson’s career fadeout was tragedy, what did success look like? Louis Armstrong’s white agent was on cordial terms with the Chicago mob and routinely skimmed half of Armstrong’s earnings, before deducting his agent’s percentage, until his death terminated the relationship. Jazz scholars today debate the implications. Duke Ellington worked for years to steer jazz out of Cotton Club plantation burlesque and into European concert halls. To accomplish that he let a white man claim half the copyright to every work he composed, and ceded forty-seven percent of the sweat of his brow for well over a decade. Ellington asked to see the books one day, and promptly terminated the relationship. That agent, Irving Mills, was the man Fletcher Henderson had declined to work with, and the inspiration for “George Brooks.” We will never quite know what price Henderson paid for dodging Mills’s desire for consolidated control of his talent. 1] An earlier version of this essay misstated the order in which Louis Armstrong and Joe Glaser died; Armstrong outlived Glaser. For a more detailed consideration of Armstrong’s financial arrangement with Glaser in comparison to others at that time, see Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (Vintage, 2012). Terry Teachout offers a different perspective in Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">1
And what are we to make of Fletcher Henderson’s leading the “Connie’s Inn Orchestra” in 1930 and 1931, under contract to the same white men who drove Louis Armstrong out of America for two years, when they tried to threaten and muscle him into an “exclusive” engagement? In 1933, the Chicago Defender used the language of slavery to describe Henderson’s Connie’s Inn-–related woes with a misleading front-page headline story, FLETCHER HENDERSON WINS $1,000,000 SUIT. Henderson was “freed from the bonds,” they said, of a “theatrical agent bearing the name and instincts of Fishman.” Fishman once tried to bring Jelly Roll Morton into compliance by sending him on a “blind date” into an abandoned mining town; now he wanted a percentage, not to exceed a million dollars, of Fletcher Henderson’s future earnings as they would be disbursed to him by the same Connie’s Inn thugs named on Louis Armstrong’s restraining order.
By 1933, Henderson’s bankruptcy was official, his primary creditors being one of his own sidemen, Fishman’s Orchestral Corporation of America, and Lou Irwin, a white man whose main meal ticket was Ethel Merman. Irwin was the kind of gent who would assault musicians of color who demanded their pay, and advance clients like Billie Holiday money for drugs and then kneecap them with million-dollar lawsuits.
It’s not a stretch to see why $37.50 per arrangement for Benny Goodman, a relative nobody with a new radio show, would look pretty good to Fletcher Henderson by the mid-1930s. The Chicago Defender chastised him when he started selling off his entire book of “head arrangements” to Goodman, saying that if he just handed over black jazz to whites, it would put black musicians out of work.
Egged on by John Hammond’s activism and propensity for fantasy-league jazz combinations, Goodman and Henderson pushed the racial envelope at their own risk, but they quietly and methodically integrated big bands in the late 1930s. The new white-dominant “swing” was smooth as a syndicate. Its fans were young stompers at the Savoy blessed with amnesia about Jim Crow. Big bands fronted by whites followed Goodman’s lead in adopting Fletcher Henderson’s basic template for swing. It seemed to telegraph something new and necessary to the generation that was girding its loins to ride to the other side of Hitler’s and Hirohito’s bomber-yards and then home.
We don’t know enough about Fletcher Henderson’s extended Grand Terrace gig in Chicago in 1938, when the Defender identified the white man who ran it, Ed Fox, as his “manager.” Fox’s claim to fame: he co-owned the Grand Terrace with Al Capone’s brother. Henderson picked up the Grand Terrace gig after Earl Hines found the courage to walk out on a contract that had underpaid him for years. Many black jazz musicians did indeed lose jobs, as club after club shuttered their doors. By 1943, one of Fletcher Henderson’s last bands was banned by a local union from playing the Rockland Palace in Miami because he had hired three young white musicians eager for the chance to play with him.
By the time Fletcher Henderson eventually played Carnegie Hall, with the white Goodman and the black Lionel Hampton, the white lady sang, and nobody got lynched. Hammond, by then Goodman’s brother-in-law with conflicts of interest sixteen ways from Sunday, seemed often to sacrifice Henderson’s best interests to the larger causes of racial integration and Benny Goodman’s success. He positioned a younger black piano man, Teddy Wilson, in Goodman’s personnel. The next new replacement white lady sang, and even Southerners ate up all the jazz sweetness with a spoon.
Russell Procope, the great clarinetist who lingered as long as he could with Henderson and then left him for Duke Ellington, once described a pivotal moment in his boyhood, hearing Fletcher Henderson’s early recordings pouring out of almost all the open doors and windows of Harlem in the 1920s. The Henderson sound inspired Procope to consecrate his own life to jazz. He later said, “I never got the figures, but Fletcher Henderson musta sold a helluva lot of records. Somebody musta made a hell of a lot of money. You can believe that.”
Grainy old film footage shows Benny Goodman dedicating a performance to Henderson after he died of a stroke in 1951, faded from the consciousness of the American public. Goodman’s eyes go watery, remembering. He uses the word “genius” to describe his black colleague, and this gesture deepened respect for Goodman in both races. But how can we not be haunted by his brother Horace’s stories of the toll that the Goodman collaboration took on Fletcher? “Benny would think nothing,” Horace said, “of calling you up at four in the morning, telling you, ‘I’ve got to have this by ten.’” Horace, a musician in his own right, described finding Fletcher asleep at his piano in the middle of the night sometimes and having to lead him upstairs to get undressed for bed, even helping him finish the work at times.
“This was the source,” wrote a New York Times jazz critic, a decade after Henderson’s death. The occasion was Columbia’s 1961 release of The Fletcher Henderson Story: A Study in Frustration, a four-album set covering Henderson’s work from 1923 to 1938, now considered the necessary compendium. It’s all here: “Sugarfoot Stomp,” “Dicty Blues,” “Variety Stomp,” and the sublime and magisterial “Jackass Blues.” You can pay your money to the white men to hear this music, or you can forage for free on the Internet. Whether you catch the Henderson sound on the black swing or the white, claim it as your human birthright. It’s an updraft that will lift you to a place beyond race.
Jazz writers are a special breed; they research and write a hard-won kind of history. To learn more about Fletcher Henderson and early jazz, consult some of these. —Cynthia Shearer
Walter Allen, Hendersonia (self-published, 1973).Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.
Jeffrey Magee, The Uncrowned King of Swing (Oxford University Press, 2008).
A Study in Frustration: The Fletcher Henderson Story (box set) (Columbia Records, 1961/1994). Liner notes by Frank Driggs & John Hammond.
James Lincoln Collier, Louis Armstrong: An American Genius (Oxford University Press, 1983).
Rex Stewart, Boy Meets Horn (University of Michigan Press, 1991).
David Suisman, “The Black Swan” in Selling Sounds (Harvard University Press, 2009).
A. H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington and His World (Routledge, 2001).
Dunstan Prial, The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music (Picador/FSG, 2006).
Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters of the ’20s (Da Capo, 1988).
Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993).
“Fletcher Henderson, Architect of Swing,” in NPR Jazz Profiles (National Public Radio, 2007)