The Magazine


The Centennial of a Great American Composer, Jazz Musician, and Businessman

May 3, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 31 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson had a lot in common. Both were born into middle-class black families, Henderson in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1897, Ellington in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899 -- one hundred years ago this week. Both were pianists who moved to New York and became bandleaders, Henderson in 1920, Ellington in 1923.

But it was Henderson who first enjoyed real success, leading perhaps the best and most important jazz band of the late twenties. It was with Henderson's band that Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, J. C. Higginbotham, and Rex Stewart earned their first fame.

And Henderson's band was impressive for reasons beyond its soloists: Henderson (with his brother Horace and his side-man Don Redman) wrote songs, arrangements, and orchestrations that all but invented the big-band sound. It's hard to imagine the Swing Era without Henderson's "Sugar Foot Stomp" and "King Porter Stomp." Ellington himself acknowledged his debt to Henderson: "His was the band I always wanted mine to sound like when I got ready to have a big band, and that's what we tried to achieve the first chance we had with that many musicians."

But Ellington is recognized as the most important composer in the history of jazz, and Henderson is mostly forgotten. The primary reason is simple: Ellington was a great musician who over a long career created a brilliant and unique American music. But there's also a less exalted reason: Henderson didn't lose his muse or even his knack -- he just didn't have a head for business. And jazz is a very tough business.

In the days of Henderson and Ellington, bandleaders had to rely for their cash on nightclub owners, booking agents, and record producers (not exactly the most reputable lot). They had to get their bands, uniforms, and equipment to and from far-flung gigs -- and, along the way, they had to command platoons of jazz musicians (not exactly the most obedient lot).

The rigors and pitfalls of the business brought many a bandleader down. The ragtime leader James Reese Europe was stabbed to death by a disgruntled drummer. Woody Herman had to keep his band out on the road long after he wanted to retire, just to pay the IRS back the money his manager stole from the payroll accounts.

In the midst of all this potential chaos, the bandleader who was also a composer had to find the time and energy to write music. It was too much for Henderson, whose biggest success as a composer and arranger came only after he gave up being a leader. In 1934 Henderson sold his orchestra's arrangements to Benny Goodman, eventually becoming a well-paid staff writer for Goodman's band. It was just a year later that Goodman became the most popular act in the country, in no small part thanks to Henderson's charts.

The career of Fletcher Henderson may provide, in fact, the best measure for judging the remarkable accomplishment of Duke Ellington, whose centennial is being widely celebrated this year. Over his fifty-year career, Ellington wrote nearly a thousand compositions -- all while keeping afloat the most consistently excellent band in jazz.

Ellington's father was the butler for a Washington doctor, a job that required him to manage a household with panache, which may explain where Ellington learned his crucial business skills. Hardly a musical prodigy, Ellington wanted to be a big-league ballplayer and only began the piano after his mother, witnessing him struck by a baseball bat, decided he needed a different pastime.

By the time he was seventeen, Ellington had begun to play music professionally -- and it didn't take him long to realize that working as a sideman was no way to get rich. He had begun by filling in on gigs for his piano teachers, and soon a local booking agent sent him out on a solo job playing cocktail music. The young Ellington was to be paid ten dollars for the night, and his eyes were opened when the client gave him $ 100. "I gave [the agent] his ninety dollars," Ellington wrote, "but the very next day I went down to the telephone office and arranged for a Music-for-All-Occasions ad in the telephone book." From then on, Ellington led his own organization.

Ellington left for New York in 1923 and was soon leading a band at the Kentucky Club. In 1927, he moved to the Cotton Club, where he first achieved some fame. Though he wrote a slew of important arrangements in the late 1920s -- "Black and Tan Fantasy," "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" -- it wasn't until "Mood Indigo" in 1930 that he had a hit record. Over the next decade he wrote most of the tunes that would comprise his popular songbook, among them, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," and "In a Sentimental Mood."