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Fletcher Henderson: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the career and music of Fletcher Henderson, a pianist, bandleader, and arranger. In the 1920s, he became one of the pioneering figures of jazz and swing music.

Early Years

Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) was born in Georgia to a middle-class African American family that valued education and culture. He began taking classical piano lessons at age six, and his parents made him practice diligently. In college, Henderson studied chemistry and mathematics. He graduated from Atlanta University in 1920 and headed north to continue his studies and find work in chemistry. But when Henderson arrived in New York City, he realized his race would be a barrier to jobs in that field.

So Henderson switched his career focus to music. He demonstrated songs for a music publisher and later found work as a session pianist for the Black Swan Record Company. Session musicians usually work on a freelance basis, playing for live performances and recordings. They have to learn music quickly and be able to sight read charts. Henderson excelled at these skills and found himself in demand around the city.

Dance Band Success

In the early 1920s, he formed the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra with another talented musician, the saxophonist and clarinetist, Don Redman. Henderson and Redman expanded the group's size by adding more woodwind and brass musicians, a change from the normal size of dance bands at the time. Redman wrote the arrangements for this new form of instrumentation, and the band became known for its unique sound and attracted many excellent musicians. The band played at Club Alabam and then at the Roseland Ballroom on Broadway in New York City. At-home listeners could enjoy the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra's live weekly radio broadcasts from Roseland.

Between 1924 and 1925, Louis Armstrong, the famous trumpeter, played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. His solo improvisations inspired Henderson and Redman to add more solos to the band's other sections. In musical improvisation, a solo artist responds to the background chords by playing spontaneous notes and melodies above them not found in the composition. Henderson and Redman also began writing in more of a call and response style common to African American culture and New Orleans Jazz and later a distinguishing feature of the Big Band recordings of the late 1930s. For example, the woodwinds would play, and then the brass would respond, almost like they were having a conversation.

These musical changes proved a turning point in the orchestra's dynamic sound. As a result of Armstrong's solos, 'Dippermouth Blues', originally written by King Oliver, became a huge hit for the band. When Redman left the group in 1927, Henderson took over the arrangements and further developed a sound that eventually would emerge as swing. He also wrote several songs for the ensemble, including 'Variety Stomp', 'Grand Terrace Swing', 'Can You Take It?', and 'Carolina Stomp'.

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