So the time again come again to pay tribute to one of the forefathers of swing music and leader of one of the finest jazz orchestras of the 1920s and ’30s, the incomparable Fletcher Henderson.
Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., was born on December 18, 1897 into a middle class family in Cuthbert, Georgia in a home built by his father. Like so many, Fletcher learned to play piano as a boy, along with his brother Horace, who also went on to become a noted jazz musician and bandleader. Henderson graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 with a bachelor’s in chemistry and mathematics, and thereafter moved to New York City with intention to attend Columbia University. He got sidetracked soon after arriving however, and instead made his entry into the world of Harlem’s jazz music; while lodging with a riverboat musician, Fletcher filled in for him from time to time. He soon began working as a song plugger for W.C. Handy, which led his getting his big break in 1921. When publisher Harry Pace broke with Handy to form Black Swan Records, he made Henderson the musical director for the fledgling “race” label. At Black Swan, Henderson led his first orchestra, and he continued to lead after the company folded in 1923. Henderson began to record prolifically on most every record label in existence, both as a bandleader and as an accompanist to early blues singers. In its heyday, his band often included jazz luminaries such as Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, and, for a stretch in 1924 and ’25, Louis Armstrong. A car accident in August of 1928 left Henderson with a few broken bones, and by some accounts a depression that caused his work to decline in quality. Nonetheless, his orchestra continued to perform and record for another decade. In 1931, his became the house band of Connie’s Inn, a prominent Harlem nightclub comparable to the famed Cotton Club. As the swing era began to swing later in that decade, rising star Benny Goodman began purchasing arrangements from Henderson for his own orchestra to play; Goodman’s legendary rendition of Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter” is practically a recreation of Henderson’s recordings of the same from 1928, ’32, and ’33. He continued to lead his own band as well until 1939, at which point he disbanded his group to join Goodman’s as a staff arranger, but re-formed an orchestra and recorded sporadically throughout the 1940s. A stroke in 1950 left Henderson partially paralyzed, and he retired from music. Fletcher Henderson died two years later on December 29, 1950.
Columbia 2586-D was recorded on December 2, 1931 in New York City. The orchestra consists of Russell Smith, Rex Stewart, and Bobby Stark on trumpets, Jimmy Harrison and Claude Jones on trombone, Benny Carter on clarinet and alto sax, Harvey Boone on alto sax, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, Fletcher Henderson on piano, Clarence Holiday (that’s Billie’s father) on banjo and guitar, John Kirby on string bass and tuba, and Walter Johnson on drums.
First up, Henderson’s orchestra plays what is in a constant struggle with “Copenhagen” for the title of my favorite of their tunes, Smack’s jazzed up fox trot arrangement of the old Paul Dresser waltz “My Gal Sal”.
On the reverse, they play “My Pretty Girl” in a similar manner as Jean Goldkette’s rendition of four years prior, with a vocal by Lois Deppe.