Build a monument to Joe Henderson and send me the bill

Sometimes jazz fans aren't fair. Or they aren't paying attention.


It's painful to admit that the devotees of the most inclusive and least exclusive of all the musical genres can ignore genius for as many years as they did Joe Henderson's. But the sad truth is there for all to see.


He made his New York debut in the early 1960s and labored in admired obscurity among masterly musicians until he hit it big in 1992 with "Lush Life: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn" on Verve. There followed on the same label "So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles)" in 1993 and, after that, Joe was in the big time, his quiet and skillful musicianship making its steady inroad into the flaky rock of established, sometimes questionable, taste.


Since then, he's given us an inclusive sampling of his facility with big band jazz, Latin jazz, Gershwin jazz, and just about any other kind of jazz you can name. His reach is broad, his talent rooted in the blues, his attack impeccable, his musicianly muse healthy and ever-present, his tasteful choice of material beyond criticism.


For nearly 30 years he spent his time as a journeyman tenor sax player and piled up a barge full of experience that even included, in 1971, a very brief stint with Blood, Sweat and Tears, until he realized he had no room to grow. Blood, nor sweat, not tears could water that fertile garden. He'd already prepared for a new harvest. For a man of Joe's musical acumen, the realization took only weeks in arriving. How many times can a master stand to play a stock arrangement of "Spinning Wheel"?
But it isn't just his genius that intrigues me. It's his place in jazz history, a place which certainly is assured, but anomalous.


For Joe Henderson represents something of a "Lost Generation" of great jazz artists. He is only one among the men and women who are just young enough to have been late for the first wave of bop that broke from traditional and big band jazz. Yet, these same folks were too old to have been around for the acclaim that was showered upon the Marsalis brothers, Christian McBride, Marcus Roberts, and a legion of others, when jazz fans finally got back to what really counts in this music of ours.
They labored in recording studios, small clubs, at street fairs, supermarket and mall celebrations to eke out a living and to keep jazz alive when rock ruled the roost.


Nope. Joe and others of his generation spent the years quietly honing their chops, woodshedding the standards and gigging, gigging, gigging, getting that experience, sharpening that musical blade and, into the bargain, acquiring the kind of musical wisdom that one doesn't hear quite so deeply in the younger folks.


The first time I saw him perform, he was with an ensemble of music students from a university here in Ohio, and it was a fine unit. And Joe, the oldest and wisest of the bunch, (it happened to have been his 56th birthday in 1993, and in his hometown, to boot) was most generous with his stage time. The spotlight was on him, but he, with a Grammy already under his belt, left the stage several times while the various unknown musicians in his backing group took solos, so as to give over the spotlight to them.
That, my friends, is class. And I can think of a lot of musicians who have it, but none have been so graceful about it, in my experience as a listener and concert- and club-goer, as Joe Henderson was on that night.


Several years later, I caught Joe again in his hometown, this time playing only in a trio setting with Al Foster on drums and George Mraz on bass. What? you ask. A trio? A trio, indeed. Joe had the chops for the top end, Mraz held the bottom without sacrificing his melodious deep voice, and Foster was free to roam with that peculiar mastery that proves he thinks with a heart beating in his head all the time. Not a note was dropped. Not a beat was lost. It was a glorious evening.


For a taste of Joe Henderson in a trio setting, I recommend "Live At The Village Vanguard -- State of The Tenor, Vols. 1 and 2" (Blue Note, 1985). Here he is joined once again (actually, the first time) by Al Foster on drums and the great bassist, Ron Carter. As Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker did with the cool West Coast jazz of the 1950s, these men show what can be done without a piano.


For a grand slice of Joe's career, check out the Blue Note box set, "The Blue Note Years." It will give you a taste of his sideman experience with the likes of Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Renee Rosnes (one of his protogees), McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Grant Green, Duke Pearson, Bobby Hutcherson, Mel Lewis and Thad Jones, and many others. He's also racked up some impressive performances with the likes of Wynton Kelly, et al., outside the Blue Note years and even shared a bandstand with Miles Davis.


Now, if that isn't a resume to inspire awe, then I'll go back to playing rock 'n' roll. But don't count on it.


If somebody wants to erect a statue honoring Joe Henderson, I'll be glad to pay for the pediment. He's the best thing going in jazz today. Long may he run.