Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fletcher Henderson, an introduction

A couple of posts ago, I talked about King Porter Stomp, and about Fletcher Henderson's various versions of it.  I think it would make sense to say a little bit more about Henderson.  I've found that Henderson's name is not as well known as the stars of the swing era.  For that reason, I'm not going to delve deeply into the details of Henderson's biography or do a lot of musical analysis, I'd like to just give some examples of what I think makes Henderson special.  I think the best thing is for people to hear this important band, and to let the sound speak for itself.  So, a lot of music in this post.  (I tried to have fewer words to make up for it.)

Fletcher Henderson was born in Georgia in 1897, and led a band from 1922 through 1939.  Henderson's band probably did the most to develop what we now recognize as big band swing music.  From the beginning, the band used complex arrangements and syncopations, but the early recordings often sound stiff.  This early recording of "The Stampede" shows both the potential and the limitations of the early Henderson band; the arrangement is catchy and exciting, but the playing is stiff.

The Stampede, 1926

There is a lot of criticism of Henderson's band based on its stiff sound.  Much of this is unfair, though-- this was about as swinging as anything being played at the time.  As time went on, the band developed a really swinging sound which was a huge influence on many bands, including Benny Goodman's.  Perhaps the most important contribution of the Henderson band was the way it used instruments in sections to play riffs.  These riffing sections are an essential ingredient of later swing music.  The interplay of sections which made the early recordings interesting and exciting worked even better as the band found a smoother, more swinging sound.

The Stampede, 1937

This later recording is also a perfect example of something that I think the Henderson band did as well or better than any other band: they acheived a kind of elegant sophistication in their sound.  The swing is relaxed and driving at the same time.  This is hard to do, but essential for this kind of music.  Overall, the music is exciting, yet it is not wild.  The saxophones are wonderfully euphonious, the trumpets and trombones are strong but not excessively so...  Duke Ellington is rightly praised for the sophistication of his music, but I think Henderson's band, at its best, combined sophisticated elegance with joyous swing in a way that no other band ever quite equalled.  I find it hard to put this into words.

Variety Stomp is an example of the importance that arranging always played for the Henderson band.  The early recordings are quite unlike big band swing music, but they are very much like earlier dance band music in the complexity of the arrangements.  They are full of tricks and surprises.  Variety Stomp lives up to its name by being full of ideas.  It seems like enough material for many songs was distilled and combined into three minutes.  I also find the ending of this song to be interesting.  It sounds a bit like a mistake.  This may be true, as the band recorded three versions of the song in one day, and another version about a month later.  That may be evidence that the band was having a hard time getting this complicated song right.

Variety Stomp, 1927

Radio Rhythm is another recording which I think shows the trademarks of the early Henderson recordings.  It is frantic and full of strange rhythms and harmonies.  I love the oddness of it.  I assume that the rhythm of the trumpets is supposed to imitate the sound of someone saying the words "Ra-di-o Rhy-thm."  Like Variety Stomp, it has a dark and threatening quality-- this is not entirely happy music, and I like that.

Radio Rhythm, 1931

Christopher Columbus is a perfect example of the riffing style of the Henderson band.  These exchanges of riffs between the sections became more prominent in Henderson's arrangements as time went on, and this became the most important aspect of big band arranging during the swing era.  This recording is also notable for a trumpet solo by Roy Eldridge, who would become a star in his own right during the swing era.  It is a fact that Henderson's arrangements were the basis for the swing-era big band sound.  By the time of this recording, Benny Goodman, in need of arrangements for his band, had bought many of Henderson's arrangements and turned them into standards for the new swing era.

Christopher Columbus, 1936

In Jangled Nerves, we can hear the band still achieving a relaxed and easy swing at 300 beats per minute.  It doesn't sound as fast as it is, until you try to dance to it.

Jangled Nerves, 1936

Finally, Riffin'.  I include this only because of the title.  Perhaps it's evidence that Henderson knew by this time what his influence had been.

Riffin, 1936

I'll note here that the history of the Henderson band is quite complicated.  The band was quite innovative during the twenties, yet never seemed to achieve its potential.  These recordings from 1936 have a very different sound.  This is because there are many new members in the band, and probably because the band was influenced by the newer bands that were playing Henderson's own material in a new way.  I'll also note that, while Henderson himself was a gifted arranger, the band used various other arrangers, so one must not assume that all of these ideas were Henderson's.

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