Fletcher Henderson 1897-1952
Bandleader, arranger, pianist

 

 
 
 

 


The Kennedy Center
ARTSEDGE
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership
Listen to the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in "Harlem Madness."

Although Fletcher Henderson moved to New York intending to become a chemist, he wound up mixing sounds, not compounds. Chemistry work was hard to come by, so Henderson took piano-playing gigs with various big-band jazz groups.

In January 1924, he landed a job at a well-known dance hall, the Roseland Ballroom. There Henderson and his orchestra pioneered a new sound that partnered perfectly with the latest dance crazes, notably the Lindy Hop.

When arranger Don Redman joined Henderson, their combined genius helped usher in the Swing Era's "big-band sound," which featured complex exchanges among the reed, brass, and rhythm sections—a significant advance from the traditional jazz reliance on instrumental solos.

Written solos added harmonic depth to this new musical formula. The solos may have sounded improvised, but in fact their every note had been carefully scored. One example is his 1926 arrangement of "The Henderson Stomp," which featured Fats Waller on the piano. Redman's genius shined in this composition, in which he innovatively incorporated Harlem stride (characterized by a syncopated rhythm played by a pianist's left hand).

A true jazz visionary, Henderson hired such up-and-coming talents as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins to play in his orchestra. He also earned respect for jazz from the national public and from the Talented Tenth, who often disregarded jazz tunes for not being "serious" music.


 

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Bessie Smith often sang with Henderson's Orchestra.
He lived in Dunbar Apartments.
He was recording manager at Pace Phonograph Company.
Henderson's Orchestra competed in the Savoy Ballroom's Battle of the Bands.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson danced with the orchestra at an NAACP benefit.
Pianist Fats Waller jammed with the orchestra.
Singer Ethel Waters taught Henderson how to accompany her voice.
He played in the Harlem Symphony with William Grant Still.
 
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