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The Original King Of Swing

February 2024
1min read

A Study in Frustration
The Fletcher Henderson Story: Thesaurus of Classic Jazz


Columbia/Legacy 57596 (three CDs), $42.98. CODE: BAT-23

Fletcher Henderson invented the big band and defined its sound practically single-handedly; he led one of the most polished and innovative jazz orchestras of the age, bringing through its ranks such giants as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young; and his arrangements became the foundation of Benny Goodman’s success and the swing-music craze that followed it. Yet today he is the least remembered of the great bandleaders. Why? He was “afflicted,” as the jazz historian James Lincoln Collier put it, “with an almost pathological lack of self-assertiveness.” He couldn’t control the stars who made up his band and was a terrible businessman. He constantly let events overtake him.

Born in 1897, he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1920 and went to New York to seek a career as a chemist. Failing to find work, he became the house pianist for a music publisher and became popular enough at it that he was talked into auditioning for a bandleading job. In the first years of his band he had a superb arranger in the saxophonist Don Redman; after Redman left, Henderson ended up doing much of the arranging himself—and found he was brilliant at that too. But by 1934 he had lost his finest musicians and couldn’t get bookings, and he sold some of his best arrangements to Benny Goodman, who used them to fashion the sound of his brand-new band.

The whole arc of Henderson’s career is here in ebullient music, from Don Redman’s first arrangements of 1923, which evolve from standard popular dance music into powerful swinging jazz, to early thirties masterpieces like the adventurous bravado display piece “Queer Notions” and the all-time big-band hit “Christopher Columbus.” The music is simply wonderful.

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