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Illuminating biography fit for a big band 'King'

The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz
By Jeffrey Magee, Oxford University, 322 pp., illustrated, $30

Fletcher Henderson's name is rarely mentioned among those of such jazz luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, but their legendary careers might have never occurred without him.

That's the persuasive argument made by author Jeffrey Magee in his studious new Henderson biography, "The Uncrowned King of Swing." Goodman, the great clarinetist and bandleader, is still recognized as the embodiment of jazz's big band era, yet it was Henderson's innovative arrangements, Magee maintains, that helped give Goodman's music its swing.

Henderson was a bandleader and pianist, but such simplistic descriptions undersell his role in jazz's development in the 1920s and '30s. For Magee, he is best described as "a musical catalyst, facilitator, collaborator, organizer, transmitter, medium, channel, funnel, and 'synergizer,' if such a word existed."

Not bad for a man who originally wanted to become a chemist.

Born James Fletcher Henderson in Cuthbert, Ga., in 1897, he was raised by parents who, both teachers, believed musical training was a vital component for a well-rounded education. In a home filled with classical and church music, all three of the Henderson children (Fletcher was the oldest) were taught to read music and play piano. In the late 19th century and into the 20th century, owning and playing a piano came to "symbolize middle-class respectability," Magee writes.

"For black families, struggling to prove their worth in a white world, possessing such symbols could become a mission," he contends. "In the Henderson family, the piano stood for more than respectability. It had to be used as another means of instilling the importance of education through discipline."

As a boy, Henderson played piano only because his parents demanded it. In college, he was more interested in science and sports, although he was also the chapel's organist at Atlanta University. Henderson moved to New York with dreams of a career in science, but opportunities in music were more abundant.

Magee is less concerned with personal minutiae than his subject's progression as a musician. This may leave those in search of a more straightforward Henderson biography wanting, but creates room for an engrossing history of jazz's evolution between the world wars.

Henderson landed a job promoting music published by the Pace and Handy Music Co., co-owned by blues pioneer W. C. Handy. More than a job, it also changed Henderson's career plans, and his timing was prescient. In 1920, record companies were eager for "race records," recordings by black musicians intended for black audiences. Things would really blossom for Henderson when he followed Harry Pace, Handy's business partner, who formed the first black-owned record company, Black Swan. By the mid-1920s, Henderson was fronting his own band, which included saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

For a brief but extraordinary time, the band also featured Armstrong, whose sublime trumpet style transformed Henderson's group from "a dance orchestra to a jazz band," Magee writes.

Still, it was Henderson's work with Goodman that ensures his place in jazz history. Introduced to Henderson in 1934 by renowned music promoter and producer John Hammond, Goodman recognized Henderson's arrangements as art. Of course, during years of bitter segregation in this country, the revolutionary nature of the Goodman-Henderson partnership cannot be overstated. (At Hammond's insistence, Goodman also formed, with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, jazz's first interracial ensemble to perform in public.)

With access to Henderson's orchestral arrangements (held in the Benny Goodman Collections at the Yale University Music Library and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), Magee examines the Henderson-Goodman collaboration through such classic pieces as "King Porter Stomp," "Sometimes I'm Happy," and "Honeysuckle Rose."

Throughout the book, Magee resorts to jargon and musical notation to deconstruct the complexity of Henderson's arrangements. This may suit Magee, an associate professor of musicology at Indiana University, but it can prove dauntingto those who wouldn't know a B flat from an F sharp.

Still, Magee has written an important book, illuminating an era too often reduced to its most familiar names. Goodman might have been the King of Swing, but Henderson here emerges as that kingdom's chief architect, an innovative musician who played a crucial role in building music that, Magee maintains, achieved "a delicate consensus joining teenagers and adults, black and white, oral and written music, Tin Pan Alley and jazz."

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