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Fletcher Henderson: 'Ken Burns Jazz: Fletcher Henderson'


A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: A truly swinging band, Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra from 1933. Murray Horwitz, this is the band which sort of made the big band. All the other big bands came out of this orchestra.

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: That's right, A.B. Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman, and some of the other folks in the band — but those were the primary men behind this — invented a mechanism for ensemble playing that became the model for everything that followed in the swing era: the jazz big band.


SPELLMAN: They had the first great arrangements. They were the first to require the musicians to be able to read music. And they had much more discipline in their playing than any other band that had come before.

HORWITZ: That's right, and most of it comes from the personality of Fletcher Henderson, who was a serious musician. During those segregated times, he prided himself on the fact that his dance band played waltzes better than the other black dance bands. And when Louis Armstrong comes from Chicago to join the band, and everybody hears what Louis Armstrong is doing rhythmically, the band starts to take that same ensemble discipline and apply it to the discipline of swing. The world is changed forever.


SPELLMAN: The Henderson Brothers, Fletcher and Horace — along with Don Redman to do the writing. Louis Armstrong to set the aesthetic of the band, and other soloists to be included in that to bring it all along. Who would the other soloists be?

HORWITZ: The most important was Coleman Hawkins, who became the key soloist in the band. He was with the band for, I think, over 10 years, and you can hear him on this CD virtually inventing the jazz tenor saxophone.


HORWITZ: There are a few ensembles in jazz that have been academies for teaching people. One of the first was the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. There are men playing in these bands who went on to play with Duke Ellington like Ray Nance and Russell Procope. There are people who became great band leaders in their own right like John Kirby. And then there are that stunning array of soloists like Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and a bunch of others.


SPELLMAN: The CD is called Ken Burns' Jazz: The Definitive Fletcher Henderson. It's on the Columbia label. It's in our NPR Basic Jazz Record Library. For NPR Jazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.

HORWITZ: And I'm Murray Horwitz.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz

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