Fletcher Henderson: Scientist of Swing

Born this day, bandleader, arranger, accompanist and composer Fletcher Henderson (James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, 1897-1952), one of the key inventors of the musical style known as Swing.

The son of a small-town Georgia school principal, Henderson was drilled relentlessly in the fundamentals of music as a child, though he went on to study chemistry and mathematics at Atlanta University, graduating in 1920. His first job in NYC was as an assistant in a chem lab. But opportunity of another sort knocked. His room mate played piano in a riverboat orchestra and sometimes Henderson subbed for him. Soon subbing led to a full time job. From here he went on to a post as a song demonstrator for a sheet music company, which led to a position as musical director for Black Swan Records. Located in Harlem, Black Swan was the first major record label owned, operated by and marketed to African-Americans. Henderson worked there for the whole of existence, from 1921 to 1923.

Black Swan was formed by Harry Pace, former business partner of W.C. Handy, with partial financial backing by Bert Williams. Its artists included the cream of the jazz and blues community, including Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis ArmstrongAlberta Hunter, Trixie Smith, Eva Taylor, Lovie AustinCreamer and Layton, Essie Whitman of the Whitman Sisters, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Roosevelt Sykes, and Tampa Red. As musical director, Henderson accompanied many of these artists (typically female singers) on piano, led small backing bands, and went on the road with the Black Swan Troubadours which brought its artists before live audiences in the south in black vaudeville. 

In 1923 Black Swan folded, and Henderson assembled his first band. Initially working with arrangers like Don Redman and Benny Carter and eventually becoming a formidable arranger himself, Henderson was a key catalytic figure in the transition of jazz from the hot New Orleans style to the big band Paul Whiteman-derived sound known as Swing. It was a job of turning cats into an orderly herd, organizing the sound. Where the early years had been characterized by a kind of gloriously chaotic clash of almost pure improvisation, Swing was about establishing specific, written moments, such as call-and-response bits, and sections where the main band would play highly arranged supporting parts under a soloist. Henderson was also instrumental (ha!) in making Harlem a major jazz center to rival New Orleans and Chicago. He and his orchestra, which included greats like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, and others, played major ballrooms and night clubs, recorded scores of hit records, and played on radio. Starting in the 1930s, Henderson began selling his arrangements to, and creating new ones for other bandleaders, such as Benny Goodman. For a time, he also played with Goodman’s band, although he periodically re-formed his own bands through the end of the 1940s.

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous