The following review of James Magee’s marvelous Fletcher Henderson’s biography originally appeared in the September 2010 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue329) which can be downloaded at jazz-blues.com.
The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz
Oxford University Press
Despite his importance in the history of Big Band Jazz, Fletcher Henderson has not been the subject of as much discussion as his stature warrants. Musicologist James Magee helps address this shortcoming with an overview of Henderson’s life, training to be a school teacher, musical career, and, most importantly, detailed analysis and discussion of his music, ranging from his early blues accompaniments, the legendary big band and then his career arranging for Benny Goodman’s Big Band, alluded to by the book’s title. At the same time, Magee challenges some of the simplified interpretations of jazz history in analyzing Henderson’s importance, brushing aside the simple dichotomies between dance music and art music to have a more realistic and accurate discussion of Henderson’s music.
Fletcher Henderson’s musical career coincided with the shift in the music industry from sheet music sales to phonograph record sales. Instead of furthering his science education, he became a song plugger for Pace and Handy Music Company and then music director for Pace’s Black Swan label, a label striving for cultural respectability as well as blues, where he played a significant role in the rise of Ethel Waters, and later toured with the Black Swan Troubadours.
The would be chemist had arrived in the forefront of black musical life and was leading an orchestra when he applied for an opening at the Roseland Ballroom in 1924, then looking for versatile non-jazz bands. His band was a disciplined band whose members were able to read and handle a wide repertoire, and Magee notes how the band evolved with any number of celebrated musicians such as Coleman Hawkins joining him. Like the white orchestras he competed against, Magee notes the wide variety of new arrangements of songs from Tin Pan Alley that dominated the band’s repertoire, which also included a fair amount of material from the race records.
Two figures would help Henderson emerge as one of the leading jazz big bands. One was Don Redman, who built upon innovations by such arrangers for Paul Whiteman as Ferde Grofé. McGee uses musical examples from the band’s early recordings to show how Redman imaginatively rearranged stock arrangements of the time, employing stop-time, cymbal punctuation and other devices. The other major individual was Louis Armstrong who left King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago to join Henderson, and whose year and a half would help accelerate the band’s growth and maturation.
While much has been made about how Armstrong transformed the Henderson Orchestra into a jazz’ band, Magee’s analysis is far more sophisticated and also shows how Redman’s arrangements help feature Armstrong’s trumpet and showcase the star as he doctored existing stock arrangements. Magee provides detailed analysis of the rendition of “Wolverine Blues” to illustrate this point. Included are some musical examples, some of which are more descriptive and others more fully notational.
The framework is set and Magee continues to trace the band’s history after Armstrong and Redman leave, as the repertoire goes beyond that for ballroom dancing. The triumphs and pitfalls of the band’s history are detailed from their successful residency at Connie’s Inn to the band’s dissolution. Henderson’s own emergence as an arranger after Redman’s departure is chronicled, and after the dissolution how Henderson became one of the foremost arrangers of the Swing era and the crucial role he played for Benny Goodman’s Kingdom of Swing.
To demonstrate this point, detailed musical examples are provided of some of the seminal recordings Goodman made using Henderson’s arrangements. Henderson died in 1952 and there is some discussion of his legacy. Included is a list of Henderson’s arrangements for Goodman, an extensive bibliography and a discography that is frustrating because so many of the reissues are hard to find. While the detailed musical analysis may deter casual readers, Magee’s cogent analysis is well worth spending time with.
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher