Henderson the Swing King

By  |  January 27, 2016
32 East 57th Street, Manhattan (1935). By Berenice Abbott. 32 East 57th Street, Manhattan (1935). By Berenice Abbott.

My own jazz age began in the 1970s with my discovery of the Crusaders, so the most prominent jazz Henderson in my mind was Wayne. My parents watched the Tonight show, so the only bandleader Henderson I knew was Skitch. Later, as I read (erratically) in books about jazz, I ran across the name of Fletcher Henderson, but Cynthia Shearer’s propulsive, cradle-to-grave narrative of his life and influence on twentieth-century music and culture left me floored.

I recently bought a new turntable after two decades of going without and subsequently dug my parents’ boxes of vinyl out of storage. Even before I read Cynthia’s story, I’d been listening to Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, which some have called the most significant concert in jazz history, the concert that made jazz a listener’s, in addition to a dancer’s, music. Scanning the LP’s back-sleeve credits, the small font belies the outsize influence Fletcher Henderson had on the genre, which is now beginning to be more widely acknowledged. As Shearer writes:

For most of the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression, Henderson’s bands were the first turnstile through which many a young black male musician passed, fresh from far-flung American precincts, on the way to his rightful place in jazz iconography: Louis Armstrong, Big Charlie Green, Lester Young, Rex Stewart, Red Allen, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams, and a whole host of others. The most obvious case of influence is Benny Goodman, who built his reputation on Henderson’s book and his back, only to be anointed ‘king of swing’ in the perpetual paternity suit that is jazz criticism.

It was also treat and a surprise to find the opinion of Henderson’s greatness confirmed in the issue’s interview with Col. Bruce Hampton, who relates that none other than Sun Ra ranked Henderson as the best bandleader of all time, ahead of Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Goodman. “And he said Henderson’s bands,” Col. Bruce tells Lance Ledbetter, “were ten times better than the rest of them.”

Even after the Georgia Music Issue was finished, I continued the discussion with Cynthia—a novelist and a writing professor at Texas Christian University—about Fletcher Henderson, a subject neither of us wanted to close. The following is an email exchange we conducted that delves more deeply into her story, including the origins of her interest in Henderson, the research she unearthed, and the difficulty of finding firm answers to questions of musical attribution and the (sometimes dirty) business of early jazz.


Can you begin by telling us how you first heard of Henderson and how and why, as primarily a fiction writer, you subsequently became intrigued with researching and writing an extended nonfiction account of his life?

I asked my father one time, “Who had the best big band, Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller?” He answered, “Neither one. It was Fletcher Henderson.” He told me about hearing Henderson’s radio hour when he was growing up in South Georgia, and claimed to have hitched a free train ride or two to hear him on the rare occasions Henderson came back to Georgia to play. My father also told me that later in his military days, he had once had a conversation with Henderson in a deserted officers’ club, when Henderson was waiting for some equipment to arrive before a performance. He described it as one of the greatest moments of his life, just sitting at a table having a drink with him, the cooks in the kitchen sneaking adoring looks at him. Henderson was already in bad health by then, but he still had a sense of humor about being from the piney woods of Georgia. Sometime after my father died, I started listening to Henderson’s music. I think this is a deep American secret that needs to get out: that a black bandleader in the early 1930s was a role model to a smart little white boy wanting to get the hell out of South Georgia just like Henderson did.

As for the OA piece, my first thought was to make sure Henderson got his rightful ink allotment in the OA’s Georgia Music Issue, because nobody much has ever heard of him. So I went into it thinking to do a kind of painless little generic biography that paid homage to his Georgia roots. The more I read the old Atlanta Constitution accounts of Henderson’s father and the lynchings around Cuthbert, the more I began to realize it was not going to be painless or generic, that it was going to require something else with the controlled emotional valence of, say, Blind Willie Johnson singing about the Titanic with a smidge of vocal fry. I am interested in the holes in history. There are a lot of holes in Henderson’s history.

Did you feel apprehensive about wading into the critical waters of an area of study like jazz, where people are both intensely emotionally involved and exceedingly knowledgeable and scholarly? Both Geoff Dyer (But Beautiful) and Michael Ondaatje (Coming through Slaughter) chose to muddy the waters by turning their research into fiction, but you’re out there naked. How much time did you spend on research, what did you find that you didn’t think had been found before, and what reactions have you heard from jazz scholars?

It’s terrifying to write about jazz because (a) the sources and oral histories contradict each other, and (b) the only people who read about jazz are often musicians themselves who wince at descriptions of jazz music coming out the mouths of literary folk. Can you blame them? But we do it anyway. When you write about jazz and you add a sentence that re-geo-locates the birth of swing to a red-dirt town in Georgia, you can already hear the ghosts of Nick LaRocca and Louie Armstrong protesting before you reach the full stop, and King Oliver spinning in his grave. Time to put the Kevlar on and make yourself a nice drink and get ready to split some hairs because there are old quarrels that you have just wandered into.

I do admire it fiercely when a novelist comes into a historical issue sideways to force new discussion. I’m thinking of Don DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald figure in Libra. I also really admire William Boyd’s contemporary novel Brazzaville Beach; in particular a scene that accomplishes in a few paragraphs what it would take decades to percolate up through the anthropology journals. Boyd’s asking a big question: ever notice how old-school male academics can resemble primates in the way they police the utterances of any younger males and females that stray beyond the alpha’s scented circle? And Boyd’s scene is based on some pretty high-powered primatology research. Right now I’m finishing Tom Piazza’s A Free State. This book is magic, elegant conjure work, yet solidly grounded in history. And he makes a point about race and voice and music in America that will reach many people, most of whom would not touch an academic journal with a ten-foot pole.

My idea with this nonfiction piece on Fletcher Henderson was to pipe some new research questions into the mix of Henderson stories out there. Jeffrey Magee’s excellent low-key biography and Walter Allen’s Hendersonia, a big coral reef of data, are very thorough and I have so much respect for the basic human integrity in those works. David Suisman’s relatively new research on the Black Swan label (and tour) is some of the coolest work I have seen in a while. If I turned up anything new, it may be that there is a clear pattern of three generations of anti-lynching efforts in the Henderson family, beginning with his grandfather’s depositions after the Civil War. I ran across enough information that also makes me see a high likelihood that the Black Swan Troubadours tour in 1921–22 was also Harry Pace’s way of supporting the NAACP’s full-court press to try to get the Dyer anti-lynching bill through Congress. I want to be sure that people understand that Fletcher Henderson had probably earned his place in American history books before he ever led that first band into Club Alabam.

I’m no historian; I got trained as a fiction writer to shamble in like Moms Mabley asking that the house lights be turned back on because we are not done talking about this or that particular thing. In Henderson’s case, we need to pull the camera back a little on that stock scene of the little boy locked in with the piano and get more in the frame—the ambient racism, the white men giving speeches in the downtown hotels about how if you educate the Negro you destroy your cheap labor force. Should we look more closely at Henderson’s Atlanta University days? Can we look at Kemper Harreld, his first real mentor? Can we get a focused study of Henderson’s difficulties in dealing with white managers? How ’bout a little litigation history? Should we do a FOIA search to see if J. Edgar Hoover also tracked Henderson once he was connected to John Hammond? Was the ugly plantationism limited to the stage sets, or did it transfer into the financial arrangements with white nightclub owners? Henderson’s purported lack of “business sense” has been looping for many decades now, cropping up in places like a popular Benny Goodman biography that offers only Goodman’s girlfriend as the authority on the subject. I’m sorry; can’t we, as a tribe, do better? Some readers have been as interested in these questions as I am. There are photos in the Amistad collection that the world has never seen, including one that may well be the crew of the first Hudson River tour boat that Henderson played on. I do not want to pursue these things; I want to try to grow peonies in Texas!

2016 01 27 Jennings Shearer

It does seem like we (human beings, I mean) latch onto narratives that ossify, and we have a hard time asking new questions about them. You raise so many! May you raise as many peonies. As a fiction writer and a storyteller, it seems as if uncovering the stories behind the songs gives you as much pleasure as the music itself, that you hear history along with the music. Can you trace this dual interest to anything in particular?

In 2000 I had a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to research my second novel, and a Mississippi friend, Tom Freeland, offered to add me to a private email list of “roots” music scholars working on various projects. Blues, country, bluegrass, early jazz, even some African music. I don’t remember who all was on this list, but I do remember Alan Balfour, Dick Spottswood, Jeff Todd Titon, Charles Wolfe, Mary Katherine Aldin, Tony Russell, Howard Rye, Kip Lornell, Chris Smith, Scott Barretta, David Nelson, and others. They (in my estimation) laid the foundation for what people now call “Americana,” long before we heard the word used in the way it is today.

I mostly just lurked on that list for over a year, but I learned from them that it was okay to be skeptical of “popular” music writing if the spirit so moved me. They could read the subfloor of a lot of rock music the public assumed to be “original.” Many were doing work that illuminates the hidden racial songlines in American culture, how they crisscross. These guys could give you the sixty-second etymology of a song like Kurt Cobain’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” branching backward in time to Leadbelly’s version rather than the Louvin Brothers’ “In the Pines,” and then steer you to even older fiddle or bluegrass variants that came out of Appalachia. Or they could tell you whether “Trombone Charlie” Green had actually frozen to death in his own doorway. Somebody in Maryland or Mississippi might pose a question to the group; somebody in Southampton or the Shetland Islands might answer back.

I was awestruck. They were editors, ethnomusicologists, discographers, and devotees of the music, some with street cred that goes back to Newport in the sixties. Some were using methodologies that go back to early days of authenticating Shakespeare texts or even Sanskrit grammars! A black Pentecostal preacher in Florida singing about the death of FDR would get the same care and expertise as FDR himself. It was mind-bending to me, to read Charles Wolfe’s consideration of DeFord Bailey, the first black Grand Ole Opry star. I think Howard Rye was working on his Southern Syncopated Orchestra (black) topic then, which eventually balanced out the existing scholarship on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (white).

I considered myself lucky to be even in liminal proximity to what I saw as the brain trust of American popular music research, bouncing emails around the globe in the early days of the Internet, writing books or massive discographies, doing radio shows while working with record companies on reissues, writing liner notes. It was humbling to me, how they all put their shoulders to a common wheel to ensure that the music survives. Which it has. Those guys changed the way I heard music. Even today I still hear music as history.


Cynthia Shearer’s “Sugarfoot Stomp” appeared in our Georgia Music Issue.

Jay Jennings is a senior editor of the Oxford American. He is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City and the editor of Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.