Joe Henderson made his initial reputation in the ferment of what might be called Blue Note Records' second classic phase in the early 1960s, when a new generation of young musicians began to extend the basic hard bop framework of the label's seminal 1950s output in more experimental directions.
The saxophonist was one of the players at the core of that development, both as a leader and in recordings as a sideman with artists like Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, Larry Young and Horace Silver, among others. Henderson's firm grasp of the root idiom combined with his experimental nature made him an ideal exponent of the new style, which did not abandon jazz structures in as radical a fashion as the free jazz movement.
Henderson's work in that decade was continued throughout the leaner times of the 1970s and 1980s, with occasional forays into a more fusion-oriented vein (he was a member of the jazz-tinged rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears for a brief period in 1970, and collaborated with Carlos Santana in the 1990s). Always highly regarded within jazz, he enjoyed a remarkable and unexpected late flowering in the public eye with a series of records for Verve in the late 1980s and 1990s, which won him three Grammy awards, and sold in large quantities.
When asked if he regretted that this breakthrough had arrived so late in his career, Henderson would simply say that he was having too much fun to think about it. A quiet, rather reserved man who liked his own space (he was known to his fellow musicians as "The Phantom", from his habit of disappearing from view), he must have found the sudden media attention disconcertingly intrusive, but dealt with it in his usual gentlemanly fashion.
He was born into a large family in rural Ohio, and grew up with an eclectic range of musical interests. An older brother sparked his interest in jazz, and helped him to transcribe solos by Lester Young from Jazz at the Philharmonic records when he was still a beginner on the saxophone. The radio played a great deal of country music (he said that he knew as much about Johnny Cash as Charlie Parker), while one of his sisters introduced him to the music of composers like Stravinsky and Hindemith.
As a teenager, he heard a number of jazz saxophonists performing in the rhythm and blues bands which crisscrossed the mid-west, including Gene Ammons and John Coltrane, then an unknown playing with saxophonist Earl Bostic. He studied music at Kentucky State College and Wayne State University, then began to play jazz gigs in Detroit.
He served in the army from 1960-62, then made his way to New York, where he established himself as a regular on Alfred Lion's Blue Note label. His debut recording session in April, 1963, was on a record by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and included one of his best-known compositions, the much covered "Recordame". He made his own debut recording as a leader in June, with Page One, the first in a sequence of classic albums for the label, including Our Thing (1963), In 'N' Out (1964), Inner Urge (1964) and Mode For Joe (1966).
They reflected the ethos of the time even in their titles, invoking the new concepts of playing both "inside" and "outside" of the chord changes and the use of modal scales, as well as an urgent sense of expressing the inner self. At the same time, they were firmly rooted in classic jazz, reflecting his understanding and command of both swing and bebop.
His richly burnished, copper-hued sound on tenor saxophone was lighter in tone than many of his contemporaries. He has named Stan Getz as well as Lester Young as an influence in that direction, and they acted as a counter-balance to the influence of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane in his playing. Although he could be both powerful and unbridled when he wished, he was never a flashy player, and rarely called attention to himself by displays of athletic technique or gimmicks. His playing was controlled, thoughtful, at times even austere, but above all intensely musical.
He favoured vintage Selmer saxophones, but twice lost one particular favourite horn. It was stolen, and almost miraculously turned up again when a student of his unknowingly bought it some time later. When Henderson recognised the horn, the student returned it to him, but it was later destroyed in a fire which consumed his car after a road accident, in which he was unhurt.
He settled in San Francisco in the mid-1970s, and led his own bands throughout the decade. After leaving Blue Note, he recorded a series of albums for Milestone and other labels, including The Kicker (1967), Tetragon (1968), In Pursuit of Blackness (1971) and Black Narcissus (1975), all on Milestone, and Barcelona (1977), on enja, and Mirror, Mirror (1980), on MPS.
He worked in a collaborative group with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and led a group in the mid-1980s in which all of his collaborators were women. In 1985, the revived Blue Note Records label, now owned by EMI (Alfred Lion had retired and sold the original label in 1967), issued The State of the Tenor, two discs recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York with a trio featuring bassist Ron Carter and Al Foster, which were austere masterpieces of refined jazz playing.
They gave little hint of the success to come. That began with the release of Lush Life in 1992, an album dedicated to the compositions of Billy Strayhorn, which won the first of his Grammy Awards, and sold in surprising numbers. Suddenly, at the age of 55, Henderson found himself an overnight success, and much in demand. He followed it with So Near, So Far (1993), a record which took Miles Davis's music as its theme, and Double Rainbow (1995), a disc of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim which did even better in sales terms.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this sudden prominence, however, was that it was achieved without compromising his music, or any dramatic change of musical direction, overt commercialisation, or carefully orchestrated media hype. He cut two more albums for Verve, a big band set called Joe Henderson Big Band (1996) and a version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1997), but gave up performing after suffering a serious stroke in 1998.
A false report of his death circulated on the internet at that time, which happily proved unfounded. He suffered from emphysema, and according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, was taken ill at his home in San Francisco, but did not go to the hospital until the following day, where he died of heart failure.
Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit: Hans Kumpf.