Joe Henderson was a great musician and a lovely man. This piece was written several years ago on a rare visit to the UK while he was riding high on the success of his recent releases.
You know Joe. Joe Henderson is the smooth, elegance of Lush
Life. Joe is the avant-gardeist colleague of Andrew Hill and
McCoy Tyner. He is the afro-centrist Black Narcissus. The
pretender, the elder, the searcher, the teacher.
It was a very jet-lagged Joe Henderson that I met in a London
Hotel. Now, revered and respected, only a few years ago he
seemed consigned to the second league of jazz history. We looked
back over a career as artistically distinguished as it was,
until recently, commercially neglected.
Joe suspects that the recordings he and others made for Fantasy at this time were merely tax offsets for the money that Fantasy had come into after filming One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. “I wished they had shared their game plan with me.
A naturally laid-back character, Joe was content to practice his
art in Detroit, gigging alongside Yusef Lateef and Hugh Lawson.
When the classic Miles Davis band rolled into town with John
Coltrane, Joe was up on the bandstand. Drafted, he lost two
years to the military and only then did he move to New York.
He soon hooked up with the underrated trumpeter, Kenny Dorham
and before long found himself at the Mecca of jazz – Blue Note.
“They took very good care of me there. The very first date I did
was Kenny Dorham’s record, Una Mas, which was the first time
that I’d ever been in a studio. Herbie (Hancock) was on that
date, Tony Williams, and Butch Warren if I remember rightly. At
that time Tony Williams must have been around 19. I think he had
put his age down a bit, but being a diminutive sort of guy, he
looked about 17. I was given my own head there and allowed to do
what I wanted to do, which I really appreciated later.”
A mere two months later, he went back in the studio to record
his first album as leader, Page One. With a similar line up,
except that McCoy Tyner was on piano and Pete La Roca was on
drums, Page One not only established him as a powerful new voice
in his own right, but made him an extremely in-demand tenor
player on other’s albums. Throughout the Sixties he would record
on classic albums for McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Grant Green,
Andrew Hill and Lee Morgan. What distinguished his playing was
the rare ability to float between the rich sound of mainstream
tenor players and the adventurous directions being explored by
“When it was another band leader’s session, they seemed to be in
much more of a directing mode, but with me they just asked me if
I was ready. I guess they presumed that I knew what I wanted to
do, and I didn’t. I told them yes and proceeded to count off the
tunes and make some takes, and then after about six hours or so
the session would be done.”
There then followed a brief spell with Blood, Sweat & Tears, a
band whose popular version of fusion was selling in large
quantities. Turning his back on the limousines and the pop star
lifestyle, Joe went back to the life of a gigging musician. Like
many jazz musicians, he went out west at the beginning of the
seventies. Here, he signed to Milestones, which was later taken
over by Fantasy. During this period he was to consolidate the
afro-centric work he had pioneered at the end of his time with
Blue Note, tour extensively and record many superb albums.
Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns had set in and
fewer and fewer people were getting to hear his stuff. The blame
he lays firmly at the door of his former record company.
Joe suspects that the recordings he and others made for Fantasy
at this time were merely tax offsets for the money that Fantasy
had come into after filming One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. “I
wished they had shared their game plan with me. There’s no way I
would have spent five minutes with a company like that.
Fortunately, I was kept kind of busy, but then I might have been
even more busy at a younger age, when you’ve got all this extra
energy you don’t know where to put.”
Joe was to reap some benefits from the revival of interest in
jazz during the Eighties but it was not until he signed to Verve
(part of Polygram) that the sea change occurred in his fortunes.
“We all put our heads together and decide what would be a good
project to get involved in and that’s okay because I’ve had my
own head all of these years and it’s great to have someone to
bounce ideas off of and to think in a larger way. This is new
territory for me coming from Blue Note and then to Fantasy with
their version of shelving things to this.” These projects
include his last two albums, Lush Life and So Near, So Far, both
of which won Grammys and almost every critics and reader’s poll
known to jazz. Lush Life is a celebration of the music of Billy
Strayhorn and So Near, So Far is a set of Miles Davis
compositions and tunes associated with him.
His new album, Double Rainbow, is likewise a theme album in that
all the compositions are Antonio Carlos Jobim’s. Sadly, ‘Tom’
Jobim died recently. He is celebrated in Brazil as perhaps their
finest popular composer. From the moment he first heard the
bossa nova, Joe was in love with the deceptive simplicity and
beauty of this music. Indeed his first ever composition,
Recorda Mae, was recorded as a bossa. “Antonio Carlos Jobim
has left a wealth of music for musicians to play and for the
listener to hear. I got drafted in 1960 and I came out in 1962
and while I was there bossa nova found its way to North America
and this was something that I just liked right away. I couldn’t
wait to get my ears on this new thing. When I heard it, I just
loved it – even before I heard it, I liked it. And as he would
write things the world would hear them I also would hear them.
This guy is just an incredible composer. But 65% of the things
we recorded on Double Rainbow I didn’t know at all. I found them
just days before we went into the studio. I had gone to Brazil a
couple of summers earlier and I panelled with Jobim and let him
know about the influence that Bossa Nova had on me in terms of
that one tune.
“He was going to be personally involved and he was going to play
on the second half of the record with Herbie Hancock, Christian
McBride and Jack De Johnette and he was also going to write a
special composition for that. I don’t think he had been writing
much lately so this was going to be a new composition that we
never got to. In the time that we were waiting for him to come
to New York he got ill or rather it was a progressive illness
that finally took his life.”
One half of the album was completed with these jazz heavyweights
and the other half was put together with Brazilian musicians
associated with ‘Tom’ Jobim. Joe says it was one of the greatest
pleasures of his entire recording career. The one thing he’s not
worried about is what category people are going to assign to it.
“If you want to call it jazz, call it jazz. If you want to call
it fusion, you call it fusion. If you want to call it classical,
call it classical. I didn’t want to be under the arrest of a
title like that. This project definitely permitted me an
opportunity to get through those bars and out of that confining
space I had lived in all of the time and kind of enjoyed.
“‘Tom’ was a very interesting composer. He has the kind of music
that will allow you to tailor-make it to fit whatever one has in
mind. It worked that way for us on several of his tunes. We
didn’t play the whole tune from the top left to the bottom
right. We made it fit what we had in mind without undermining
what he had in mind and I think we were not too unsuccesful.”
Looking forward to the jazz festival circuit, of which Joe is
the undisputed king, and with the release of Double Rainbow,
there is only one cloud on his mind. “I’m starting to feel
guilty about liking this album so much. I hope I don’t jinx it
in some way. But it was just so pleasurable that I hope we’ll be
forced to do a volume two.”