ends with the death of Joe Henderson
It was 3 a.m. July 1 and I
couldn't sleep, so I booted up Angus, my computer, and checked the e-mails. A note from
Mike Smith, our guiding light here at SkyJazz, awaited me. And the news was bad.
"As I write this I just heard on the radio that Joe Henderson has died,"
he wrote. "I know you liked the guy and I'm really sorry to hear this. They're
leaving faster than ever."
Joe dead? I could hardly conceive it. He was, after all, only 64, born just up the road
from me in Lima, Ohio, where he cut his jazz teeth playing in the local clubs. And where
I'd twice seen him perform and once talked with him about his recently released "Lush
Life: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn" [Verve, 1991], which was just about to make a
splash and bring him the long-delayed recognition he'd earned on every bandstand from San
Francisco, his home, around the world eastward to Japan.
His sister, Phyllis Henderson, still lives in Lima, and she told the Associated Press that
his heart gave out after a bout with emphysema, which forced him a year or so ago to
retire from making public appearances.
Emphysema for a reed man -- what a rotten, lousy fate for a musician who stands for me
among the premiere players of the late 20th century. I've written here before about the
debt we owe to Henderson for keeping the spirit of jazz alive during the years when rock
ruled the roost and flash found the fame. [See "A Monument To Joe Henderson"
(week of Jan. 24, 2000) in the SkyJazz Commentary Archives.]
Joe kept his ear on the muscle and tendon of his music. He soared to heights as lofty as
those explored by Stan Getz; he conceived angles as severe as those plotted by John
Coltrane's interior protractor and straight-edge; he bopped as hard and hiply as Dexter
Gordon; he serenaded with a breath as tender as Ben Webster's. His rhythmic sense was a
breathtaking combination of steady heartbeat and abstract mathematical subdivision.
And he was a generous musician, a former journeyman sideman who had learned on those many
bandstands across the world how to serve a tune. Joe's stage presence betrayed not a hint
of egoism for, even during his later years as a leader and -- that rarest of animals -- a
jazz "star," his efforts were geared to the performance, not the payoff. He'd
leave a stage so the audience would pay attention to a bass solo. His supporting lines
would complement, not overwhelm, those of the other musicians. He inspired confidence in
his fellow musicians, a quality rare, yet obvious to those of us fortunate enough to have
sat in his audiences.
So the body of his work beginning in the early 1960s is a virtual roadmap, not only of his
own progress as an individual musician, but also of the various pirouettes jazz took
during the years of Henderson's performing life.
It's all there -- the hard bop: "Snap Your Fingers" [Todd, 1962]; the "new
thing": "Our Thing" [Blue Note, 1963]; the modal experimentation:
"Mode For Joe" [Blue Note, 1966] and "Tetragon" [Milestone/OJC, 1967];
the live encounters that opened the entire bag: "Straight, No Chaser" [Verve,
1968] with the Wynton Kelly Trio featuring Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb, "Live At The
Lighthouse" [Milestone, 1970] and "Joe Henderson In Japan" [Milestone/OJC,
1971]; the marriage of jazz and politics: "Power To The People" [Milestone,
1969], "If You're Not Part Of The Problem ...." [Milestone, 1970] and "In
Pursuit Of Blackness" [Milestone, 1970]; the pianoless trio: "The State Of The
Tenor Live at the Village Vanguard" [ Blue Note, 1985]; and the glory of his final
years: "Lush Life: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn" [Verve, 1991], "Big
Band" [Verve, 1992], "So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles)" [Verve, 1992],
"Double Rainbow: The Music Of Antonio Carlos Jobim" [Verve, 1994], and
"Porgy And Bess" [Verve, 1997].
Joe dead? Why, the very idea is outrageous. And I can think of only two other musicians'
deaths -- John Lennon's in 1980 and Miles Davis's in 1991 -- that have infused me with
such a sense of woe. I don't fear for jazz; I fret over the opportunities now forever gone
for Joe Henderson to bring his special brand of grace and beauty to my ears yet again.
But right now, I intend to turn my ears backward to his life and the "Straight, No
Chaser" album, where I'll be hearing once more his ever-fresh dissections of Monk,
Mancini, Porter, Dameron, and Davis at a live Baltimore gig in 1968 with the Wynton Kelly
Trio. Join me, won't you?
Joe dead? Alas, 'tis true. Damn it.