Skip directly to content

Fletcher Henderson: Swing King

Jeffrey Magee was a professor at Indiana University and received his degree in musicology with extensive research and experience. He served as an editor to multiple journals and series on music and its history on various aspects. Topics include a variety of African-American traditions, Jewish-American culture, and other cultures. Research varies from first hand to knowledge on music history and culture.

Dubbed the “Uncrowned king of Swing”, Fletcher Henderson stands among the top jazz players and bandleaders. Creating and moving new styles and famous songs that start new trends and musicians, his influence reached many people. Jeffrey Magee’s biography—The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz – explores Henderson’s career and influence on different aspects of American music. From starting influence to big time shows, Henderson’s band- as it changes- shows the influence and change in American culture.

After the Civil War, cultural revolution and growing freedoms arose in the black community all across the nation. Many blacks moved to the North and attempted to make a better life for themselves. Different black families were successful and respected; Henderson’s predecessors had been much respected for their achievements. Many members of his family were educated, a cultural anomaly. A member of the family was an educator and founded the Howard Normal School in Cuthbert to be a “model of learning and discipline inspire generations of students.”1 Henderson’s family believed in education and learning different aspects of culture and went through anything to gain a piano so Henderson and his siblings could learn to play. The piano represented respectability and diversity in knowledge or the black community. In order to gain an education, Henderson attended Atlanta University and later moved to New York to pursue a chemistry career. Although looking for a career in chemistry, Henderson began his career in music industry. Henderson received many jobs in New York from the Riverboat Orchestra to the Pace and Handy Music Company. Different jobs started his career in playing and arranging music. Playing in different orchestras and records, his career and band began to grow. Through performing, his fame rose very quickly and was compared as “Paul-Whiteman of race” and “stood among most successful black musician in 1920s New York.”2 Harlem represented growth in black culture and achievements. In order to gain more prestige, Henderson took the job competitively and worked to enhance his band’s image through looks and skills. Not only did he compose music, but he also molded the careers of his sidemen.

Henderson was the active arranger for the band, but for the first four years Don Redman was the architect of the band’s music. Distinctive twists were made the arrangements different in multiple ways. Different principle changes were made to the rhythm and style of the music. Texture changes from different mutes, silence, shifts, and attacks added variety and different sounds to the whole effect. The style was pushed over to big band swing dance numbers that required a quicker tempo and style choices with different noises to add humor and surprise. Different choices that varied and allowed room for changes as time passed. Redman’s trademark was shifting the attention from different sections quickly and effectively. Sections would play off each other and add different sounds to the whole piece, or sections have their own solos. Special melodies would be pieced across the song to fill gaps and spaces, either for the whole band or specific sections. Throughout the piece, similar pieces would be used to move the piece and “recycled introductory material would become a Don Redman trademark.”3 Arrangements had variety and contrast among them, giving different distinctive solos and sounds for the audience, sounds that were revealing and fitting a blues style that was rising with popularity. The band had made its most recordings in the 18-month period before the arrival of Louis Armstrong. But when Armstrong arrived from New Orleans, he was different than the band musically and ideally. The band had been “transformed from dance orchestra to jazz band.”4 Interpretation of jazz had been moved and changed to modern music to be heard by everyone. Band style had been changed and many soloists attempted to match Armstrong’s ability to hammer out his notes. His presence in the band enhanced Redman’s goals to push toward a more jazz oriented band. There was a bridge between New Orleans and New York jazz style and improvisational skills in the band. They would combine different styles from New Orleans or Dixieland jazz styles into their own. The band’s fame had been rising with the creation of famous songs, such as “Copenhagen” and “TNT” that created excitement and allowed different soloists to be heard and pushed them up to greater heights. Many collaborations occurred between different bands and members to create new and exciting songs.

When Armstrong left the band to move into his solo career, the band struggled to develop jazz solo improvisational sound making the “post-Armstrong band struggle to make paradigm shift.”5 The goal was to balance the clash of values between black folk style and white masque and to balance the solos with the style the band played. In order to play music, the band revised older songs and created a new impact with them. Still continuing the blues craze, new styles and management were added and created to impact listeners. Pieces such as “Rocky Mountain Blues” and “Whiteman Stomp” placed the band within a different style. With growing fame and style change, the band wanted to leave the dance hall into a theatre for an audience to listen. With the help of radios, the band’s sound was broadcasted all over for ordinary people to hear. Influence spread all over New York, and the band toured different areas for shows. Instead of buses, the band took automobiles which “represented freedom and success.”6 The band would soon decline from two events, in July 1927 Don Redman left and in August 1928 Henderson had a car accident. Different speculations are made on the effect of the accident on Henderson; it either made him carefree or nothing changed. Although it slightly decline, the band continued to record and “record supports claims from the band.”7 Fundamental changes were made to the band, and in 1930 the band witnessed a financial upswing. The band received a new home base called Connie’s Inn Orchestra, which offered a better location and better pay than the dance halls, elite clientele, and live broadcasts on radio. Movement of players created the revolving door policy, where musicians would join and leave after months or years. This changing of musicians created versatile sounds and changed sections’ influences and importance. The early 1930s experienced emphasis on newer vocals within a song. Male singing rose in fame and brought Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong as strong vocalists. Arrangements were created to work with the vocalist and create different style.

In December 1932, the band made a remarkable record for Columbia Records but had no home base for personal shows. After the record, the band had a dry season and no recording and few jobs, until John Hammond funded the band with connections and jobs, and financial stability brought the band to the top in late 1934. New songs and performances brought more fame and opportunities to play at the Apollo Theatre which was down the street from Harlem Opera House. Hammond also brought in Benny Goodman, who had experience and talent bringing in sponsors. The arrangement came from many different sources and added different phrases and style. Henderson changed the vocal role to secondary role and created the book Jazz  Singing, which set many songs as examples of the vocals in a band. Different tours in different states built career and fame across America. Another change occurred in the movement into ballad style and would “send shockwave” to listeners.8 Different collaboration influences changed the arrangements and movements. Within five years the Kingdom and Swing was built with pop songs, swing variations which were socially popular. On December 19, 1952 Henderson died after three different strokes. Different sidemen sent floral arrangements and many mourned over his death. Many bands record and perform in his honor and continue to respect his career.

Jeffrey Magee depicted Henderson’s career, through the ups and downs with accurate information and insight. The overall message Magee worked to answer was Henderson’s legacy between frustration and fulfillment. Frustration comes from his career as “a victim in a familiar ritual of white-guilt exploitation.”9 Also, musical goals and ambitions taken by Benny Goodman’s performances are similar to Henderson songs. Goodman took from Henderson’s work and created a national phenomenon, and became famous across the nation, being crowned the “King of Swing” instead of Henderson. The frustration comes from exploitation and use of Henderson’s work for others gain and rise of fame. On the other hand, fulfillment in Henderson’s career and multiple hit songs that maintain popularity and importance in music history. Having the ability to “survive and even thrive in social conditions” makes the lasting effect fulfilling and worthwhile.10 The music played a role in American history, helped with the radio to reach citizens across the nation. It created a new style in the evolution of music and helped multiple new styles and especially musicians to create careers and importance. Henderson’s career has been speculated and seen on both sides of the argument, but in the end Magee makes it clear that they are relevant and becomes the listener’s problem.

Jeffrey Magee is a professor of Musicology from Indiana University and has many years of experience and knowledge. Writing other journals and books on different topics, he has done research on different aspects of music and its effect on history. To gain knowledge on Henderson, Magee visited Henderson’s hometown of Cuthbert and explored firsthand. Researching the town and Fletcher’s home, Magee questioned and found firsthand stories and information about his topic. The information and quotes gained influence and accuracy within the book. Written in 2005, the author has a New Left Historiography approach and understanding of the past. After many civil movements, looking at African-American contributions to history is important. Many topics and information are found to learn other cultures contributions to historical events. Magee’s view on Henderson and the band shows this view with detailed information and admiration. Also the conclusions it makes take different levels to explore the impact the time has music. Influence on the topics chosen to make a point and uses precise language to create his argument. The conclusion it makes is that Henderson’s career adds its unique qualities to music and American and World history. Has an impact on music with different styles that branch off and create more mediums for many to enjoy.

Reviews for this book show positive reaction from different journals—Publisher’s weekly and Library Journal— reviewing Magee and his effectiveness and information. Both journals state that the book is very effective in portraying the information accurately and fluidly. The review states that Magee “paints a vivid portrait of the central figures of early jazz and swing” and “argues convincingly that Henderson was equally important in ‘building the kingdom of swing.’”11 Many believe Benny Goodman to be the “King of Swing”, but Magee argues clearly that Henderson was a more major component to the “Kingdom of Swing” and deserves more credit. Evidence is given to support the claim, and is proven through showing Henderson’s career. The journal states that the book is a valuable source of information and highlights the career of Henderson and his band accurately. Another review has similar reaction and states that “this work will prove most useful to music scholars who want to know more about Henderson’s musical accomplishments.”12 This review puts that the book has a clear timeline of social changes occurring in America within the African American community. Different aspects as Harlem Renaissance and Jazz revolution, the information show social and cultural growth through Henderson’s band. Magee makes a connection between the choices the band and musicians made to the society during the time period effectively. As a resource, this piece serves to inform any student with information to inform about a different time period and style.

Many performers and composers receive credit in music history, but few arrangers are viewed as influential. Fletcher Henderson’s life is viewed with great detail pertaining to his band and career in arrangements. Information is organized chronologically with first hand stories and images to enhance the full effect. Images in the book include the band itself, giving real image to look at to compare and think about when reading. Also there are images that take sections from the music, with detailed information on the composition, style, and technique in reading and playing. The musical information is included to add additional information and show the procedures taken to create a final product of music. Different views and details add to the whole effect of the flow of the book and help the reader understand the changes that occur. The book shows clearly the effect on music and American art through rate of fame and process of the band’s progress in touring and reach of influence. Instead of just putting a chronological simple summary on Henderson’s career, Magee creates an in depth research and detail oriented piece.

Henderson is shown as a more credited and respected influence in the creation of swing and its effect on the world. It is shown that he “composed musicians as well as music” in a wide range of influence in the community. 13

1. Magee, Jeffrey. The Uncrowned King of Swing: Fletcher Henderson and Big Band Jazz. Oxford University Press, 2005. 16
2. Magee, Jeffrey. 63
3. Magee, Jeffrey. 78
4. Magee, Jeffrey. 79
5. Magee, Jeffrey. 97
6. Magee, Jeffrey. 124
7. Magee, Jeffrey. 128
8. Magee, Jeffrey. 216
9. Magee, Jeffrey. 243
10. Magee, Jeffrey. 244
11. Nancy Pearl. Library Journal. 23
12. Webber, Katharine. Publisher’s Weekly. 57
13. Magee, Jeffrey. 3