Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Fletcher Henderson

1897-1952 / Bandleader, arranger, pianist

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.