Eddie Henderson: The mark of a jazz musician

by Andrew Chow '14

If there was ever a Forrest Gump of jazz, it would be trumpeter Eddie Henderson.

Of course, the main difference is brainpower: Whereas Tom Hanks’ 1992 character Gump is a simpleton, Henderson is a fully licensed physician who practiced medicine for 13 years. As with Gump, Henderson has lived through a large part of the 20th century, experiencing and even playing a major role in the landmark moments of of jazz culture. At age 9, he blew his first notes into Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. He hung out with Miles Davis as a teenager and joined Herbie Hancock’s trailblazing Mwandishi band in the 1970s.

He will be featured in the Learning from Performers series (3 p.m., November 14 at the Thompson Room in the Barker Center) and then play a concert with the Harvard Jazz Bands (8 p.m., November 16 in Lowell Lecture Hall). Below are excerpts from our conversation about his incredible journey.


"My mother was a dancer at the [prominent Jazz Age Harlem venue] Cotton Club. My father was a singer for a gospel group. So by virtue of both of them being in show business, they knew all the big names. My mother’s roommate, when she was at the Cotton Club, was Billie Holiday. Her best friends were Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. All of these people, like Duke, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, used to come over to the house. Boxer Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, they were friends of my mother, and I met all these people. I just thought they were average people. I was wrong."

On his first love

"When I was 14, my family moved to San Francisco. I had no friends because I didn’t know anybody. So my stepfather bought me a ticket for the Ice Follies, and I immediately fell in love with ice skating. I started practicing seriously. I’m the first black person on this planet to ever compete and win a national championship in figure skating. I thought that was my calling in life."

On learning the trumpet

"When I was in the 5th grade, my mom took me to the Apollo Theater to hear Louis Armstrong and took me backstage after the show. I didn’t really know who he was--I was just 9-years-old!--but I met him and he taught me how to make a sound on his trumpet. Then I started taking private lessons on the instrument. I started high school in San Francisco when I was 14, where my stepfather was a doctor. When I was 17, one of my stepfather’s patients, Miles Davis, stayed at the house the whole week. He took me to his gig to one night. He had John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in his band, a bunch of greats from the era. When I heard that music, that’s when the light went on. I said to myself, 'That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.’ I started trying to learn how to play jazz from that point on."

On joining Herbie Hancock’s band

"After college, I went to medical school and became a doctor. However, I was playing the trumpet all the time, and my heart really was in jazz. Then I heard that Herbie needed a trumpet player. I knew him through Miles. He knew I played trumpet, but he didn’t take me seriously. But I was serious about music. So when he hired me for one week, that one week turned into the rest of my life. That group was way ahead of its time. Herbie had a group before me, playing music like Fat Albert Rotunda. And it was nice. But when he changed personnel, just like in chemistry, when you add different elements, sometimes you can have an explosion, a precipitate. With the Mwandishi group, it was a magical formula. Sometimes the music would jump off the paper and things would take place. We worked together three-and-a-half years, 10 months a year. Everybody got paid only $300 dollars a week. We’d usually travel by van across the country, and you had to pay your own hotel bill on the road. That was big money in those days for a jazz musician."

On self-evolution

"Music is a language. The more idioms and vocabulary the musician learns, the more eloquently he can speak through his instrument. When I got into funk and even disco in the late '70s and '80s, it was a learning experience for me, step by step. The mark of a jazz musician is to play one note, and everyone knows your sound. You just don’t want to be lost in the crowd. When I was younger, I used to imitate people, just like Ray Charles would imitate Nat King Cole. I used to imitate Miles, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard. After a while, I said, ‘Oh, who am I?’ My style is as collection of styles that I had scotch taped together. I just do it a little different. That’s my style."

[Caption: Eddie Henderson]