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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

Joe Henderson: "The Phantom" Would Have Been 80

Joe Henderson
Joe Henderson

Tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi hears in Joe Henderson a powerful mix of the astrological elements Earth and Air. “He can be playing some far out stuff [Air] and all of a sudden he comes back [to Earth] and grounds it and plays some groove that knocks you off your feet. He’s amazingly smart and fleet.”

Here's an excerpt from the great interview that Mel Martin conducted with Joe in 1991 for Saxophone Journal. In discussing the music he heard in his youth in Lima, Ohio, which ranged from r&b and country to bebop and modern classical, he gives a hint of the sonic dimensions that would let his creativity  soar while he remained rooted in the basic grooves of jazz.

"So, Prez [Lester Young], as it turns out, was probably the first person that I was conscious of influencing me. I had been listening to Rhythm and Blues, and I had gone through that generation. I was always around Country and Western music as well. I know as much about Johnny Cash as I do about Charlie Parker, because I grew up in that area. This was all we heard on the radio. Sometimes I could dial in these far off stations, like in Chicago, where I would hear something just a little more musical. A little more similar to the records that my brother had in his collection, and I liked this. I knew that this was bebop, and I could differentiate that. I spent most of my time listening to bebop, and that was what I appreciated most, so this is what I gravitated toward when I started developing and getting a few things together about playing the saxophone. I was still quite innocent, it was like a toy at that point.

"When I got a little older I would go out to these dances that they would have in my home town. When James Brown, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and these cats would come to my hometown, I'd be there at those dances and I'd be checking out the saxophone players. They all had saxophones; two or three tenor players, a couple of baritones. And later James Moody would come to town with his bands. His stuff was a little more refined with his four horns. He'd have like a trumpet, trombone , baritone, and tenor or alto or flute. He played all the doubles. I can remember I saw 'Trane at a couple of these dances. When I was about fourteen years old he came there with the Earl Bostic band. At that time Bostic was playing tunes like Flamingo, and a bunch of tunes that he made hit records of. I saw a lot of people who came to that town, who ten years later from that time, would be known as jazz personalities.

"But, they spent their time paying their dues travelling around in this Rhythm and Blues circuit. I didn't know that guy was John Coltrane, who I had seen and had talked to and met when I was about fourteen years old. I also saw Gene Ammons when I was about fifteen. He was the 'Red Top" guy. You know this tune My Little Red Top? Yeah, that was classic stuff. Good music. So, my tastes became a little refined later on.

"So, my information and my knowledge is growing because I'm starting to buy records and starting to hear people like Stan Getz, Herbie Steward, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington. All this stuff was having more meaning. And all at the same time I was listening to Bartok, Stravinsky, and Hindemith because of my one sister's tastes. I didn't know who Stravinsky was, but I knew I liked the music that I heard. "

Today is Henderson's 80th birthday anniversary. It's been 16 years since he died in 2001. The jazz world still misses his great playing and the integrity of his leadership, but I hear his influence in some of my favorite tenor players (Lew Tabackin, Ralph Lalama, Stephen Riley, Don Braden), and a few of his finely wrought compositions now rank as jazz standards. Here's Joe in 1998 with John Scofield playing "I Love You Porgy" from what proved to be Joe's final album, Porgy & Bess

Having had HendersonWoody Shaw, and Billy Hart in their company in 1987 must be one of the reasons the Norwegians are so happy.

Here's Joe with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams playing Henderson's great bossa nova, "Recorda Me." Joe told Mel Martin the tune was the first he ever composed, and while he originally conceived of it with "a Latin flavor...when the bossa nova came out I changed it to fit that rhythm." Joe introduced "Recorda Me" on his Blue Note debut Page One in 1963. Here it's from the 1985 concert special, "One Night With Blue Note."

NEPR's digital archive has two previous blogs that I posted on Joe. Click here for a feature on his debut album, Joe Henderson's Page One, and here for a feature on Joe's 1993 memorial tribute to Miles Davis, Musings for Miles

Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a bachelor's degree from UMass Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.

Email Tom at tom_reney@nepm.org.