Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fletcher Henderson: The Man Behind The Sound Of Swing

Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) played an important role in bringing improvisational jazz elements into big band/dance band compositions. Both Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman credited his talent as an arranger for much of their success. It is interesting that his role in the development of American popular music was not well understood until academic studies of the history of jazz appeared late in the last century.

He was born on December 18 into a well-educated and musical family in the southwest Georgia town of Cuthbert. Henderson earned a degree in chemistry and mathematics but as a black man he had a difficult time finding work in those fields and soon turned to music to make a living. That musical career took him from accompanying Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and other blues singers, through the creation of an orchestra that included Don Redman and Louis Armstrong, to work as a composer-accompanist for Benny Goodman at a formative time for the swing era. From blues, to jazz, to swing, Henderson was a pioneer in music for almost forty years. His formula for swing music still shapes what we hear and enjoy today. 

Here are some examples of Henderson's approach to music. First is Henderson and his orchestra playing his arrangement of Down South Camp Meeting. Our second music sample is Sandman, written by Ralph Reed and Bonnie Lake, as arranged by Henderson for Benny Goodman in 1937. 

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