A few weekends ago, some of you may have heard about (or attended!) Boogie by the Bay, a swing dance weekend in Burlingame. The event primarily caters to West Coast Swing dancers, but the organizers make sure to include some fun for the Lindy Hoppers — classes, social dancing, competitions, and performances. My partner Ben Polo and I were given a great opportunity to perform a routine choreographed by Carla Heiney, set to “Big John’s Special” by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra. It’s a terrific song (yes, even after hearing it over and over in practice) that’s got a little bit of everything you’d want in a swing composition: a catchy riff, easy and natural, yet creative transitions, a wonderful little smooth breakdown/build up, and of course, infectious swing. I realized after looking through my music collection that I was very familiar with Fletcher Henderson’s music, but I didn’t know anything about the man himself.
James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. (1897 – 1952) was a pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger. He was born into a middle class African-American family in Georgia. After obtaining a degree in chemistry from Atlanta University, he moved to New York in 1920 to work on a master’s degree at Columbia University. However, because of his race, it was extremely difficult to find work as a chemist, and Henderson fell into a series of jobs for several recording labels. In 1922 he started the resident band at Club Alabam on Broadway. The band moved on to become the nightly attraction at the Roseland Ballroom for a decade. Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra were extremely popular, but Henderson lacked the management and promotional skills to control his musicians and stay financially stable. After the crash in 1929, he began selling his arrangements to Benny Goodman. To Goodman’s credit, he always acknowledged when he was playing a Henderson arrangement, and Henderson eventually joined Goodman’s band in 1939 as the staff arranger.
Fletcher Henderson was neither a phenomenal piano player nor bandleader; his true talent was as an arranger and composer, and he had impeccable taste in finding new musicians. His arrangements were clean and delicate, natural and swinging. During its span, his band boasted the likes of Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Louis Armstrong. In fact, many credit Henderson with changing the course of jazz history by bringing Armstrong from Chicago to New York. Armstrong brought the new jazz, the sound of the South, to Henderson’s band, and by exposing Henderson to new possibilities in instrumentation and orchestration, arguably had the biggest influence on its direction. Along with his bandmate Don Redman, Henderson would come to be recognized for establishing the “formula” for big band swing music and all swing bands to follow.
My favorite tracks:
• “Big John’s Special” You will be humming this riff for days!
• “Hotter Than ‘Ell” The name speaks for itself.
• “King Porter Stomp”
• “Gin House Blues” Henderson composed this with Henry Troy, and it was first recorded by Bessie Smith.
• “Soft Winds” Recorded by Benny Goodman.