Monday, December 12, 2016

Joe Henderson's Adventures in Barber College

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“PARIS, 1 April 1998 - Miles Davis reinvented himself many times, in many shapes. His alumni include just about every influential jazz musician from his own generation on down. Davis helped deliver Bebop with Charlie Parker, gave Birth to The Cool, explored modality, was the father of jazz-rock and funk-jazz and is the principle inspiration for the young generation now marrying jazz and rap.

The poetic sound of the name "MILES", the way he looked, his lifestyle, his trademark rasp and his marriage of quality and commerciality have entered the folklore. His combination of musical, visual, sexual, and financial chops is unequaled. The ghost of MILES hovers.”
- Mike Zwerin

Very few of my business trips to Europe turned out as planned; there was always an inconsistency to them.

But whether it was tea and scones in London, cafe au lait and a croissant in Paris, or an espresso and biscotti in Rome, one person that I could always count on joining me for breakfast and consistently bringing pleasure to my day was Mike Zwerin.

This was because Mike, who was based in Paris until his death in 2010, wrote a regular Jazz column for the International Herald Tribune, the English language newspaper that is available on a daily basis in most of the major cities of Europe.

And, Man, could Mike ever write.

For those not familiar with his work, Mike was an expatriate for quite a while having left for Europe in 1969.

Mike was a fine trombonist who became known when he was a member of the Maynard Ferguson band. A strange thing happened on the way to the job. His father died and Mike suddenly found himself the president of Dome Steel. I found it very hard to imagine Mike as the head of a steel company; so did he, and in fact he would stash his horn in his office in New York so that he could slip away to play gigs. Eventually he gave the position up, returned to playing full time, and became jazz critic of the Village Voice [1964-1969] and then its London correspondent [1969-71]. He moved to Paris and wrote regularly for the International Herald-Tribune for 21 years while also freelancing for various European magazines and continues playing.

Here’s another in Mike Zwerin’s fine series Sons of Miles which he posted to Culturekiosque Jazznet between 1996-1998.

“When Joe Henderson's wise and gentle smile appeared on the cover of Down Beat magazine, the accompanying story was presented like the latest news rather than a feature about a well-known and beloved master.

"They all love Joe," the headline read.

Surprise! Look who's still kicking. Bird Lives. Glenn Miller playing "In The Mood" in that great Roseland Ballroom in the sky all these years. Elvis still singing "Jailhouse Rock" in Vegas. Where has Joe been all these years?

The man thought to be decaying in the saxophone wilderness has been discovered alive and well and living in San Francisco. Actually, he has been the tenor player of the year for years. And anyway he doesn't really care, one way or the other.

His good sense of balance questions not past absence but current presence: "I hear people saying, ‘He's been doing it for 30 years, he should have been on that cover 20 years ago.' But I'm asking myself, ‘you mean somebody's paying attention to what I've been doing all this time?'" He's happy to be on the cover, late or not.

"I'm just not curious about why I haven't been on the Down Beat cover previously," he says. "Or why I haven't been on any sort of magazine cover. It doesn't make any difference to me in terms of what I'm trying to do out here. I've been doing it for a long time, and I hope to continue to do it with or without recognition."

The most obvious and immediate physical change recognition made in his life on the road, which was most of his life, involved a qualitative as well as quantitative improvement. His hotel rooms quickly became big enough so that he could walk around the bed without tripping on his suitcase. He's not naive, he knows this is not the least in life and that he's earned it.

It did not seem like false modesty when he continued: "I'm the last one to have an opinion of what I deserve or don't deserve. You can't please everyone. We only have to try to convince the suits that perhaps we are a bit more valuable than they consider us. And above all, we try to get from sunup to sundown with as much dignity as possible."

Dignity is the word for him - intelligent, swinging, hip, modest and worthy are others.

He had no complaints. He made a good living, he owned a house, took care of his medical bills, his family. He was respected for doing what he enjoys. Not too many people can say that.

He'd been having "the strangest time" trying to convince the journalists who were suddenly pursuing him that he hasn't exactly been obscure. The people who have been in and out of his home and seen the dignity with which he has lived for the past 20 years are surprised that he hasn't broken through to this degree of respect ages ago: "I've been living in the trenches. I'm on the front line, on the point. The first shot gets fired, I get hit." The point man is expendable. Except that Joe Henderson is a terminator.

There is a joke in the critics' community, when one of them gets lazy and decides not to go out on a rainy night to hear the latest teenage whiz: "Why hear somebody who sounds like Joe Henderson when you can hear Joe Henderson?"

In Down Beat, the guitarist John Scofield was quoted explaining what's so special: "Joe Henderson is the essence of jazz..... He embodies musically all the different elements that come together in his generation...He has one of the most beautiful tones and can get as pretty as Pres or Stan Getz... He can float but he can also dig in... He's got his own vocabulary, his own phrases, he plays all different ways, like all the great jazz players... Who's playing better on any instrument, more interestingly, more cutting edge yet completely with roots than Joe Henderson? He's my role model in jazz."

Since graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, he has accompanied Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan (on the classic "The Sidewinder") and... Well, you get the idea. Why so long without a recording of his own music? "Lush Life" was the first in 11 years: "I didn't want to just go into a studio and make another record. Do the same things I'd done before. I didn't think I had anything new to say. It took 11 years to get some new ideas buzzing around in my brain and go out and make them available to my fans." He's very demanding on himself about what constitutes a real "idea."

He talks about "fans" not possessively but as people to whom he owes something. He repeats the word periodically, always with an unspoken "faithful" modifying it: "My fans know what I'm about. I respect them for that. I love my fans."

He sees all this current adulation as just basically being in the right place at the right time. The healthy dimensions of this man's ego are hard to believe.

And then comes the smile that looks you in the eye and you think of a preacher being thankful for God's will. Can you imagine? He saw a life-size poster of his own face the other day. What's the big deal? He takes the stance - you're supposed to play well, play your butt off, that's what it's all about. Why are they praising him for it?

He once called himself a "60-year-old-novice" when it came to handling publicity; learning how to be an "interesting" interview. He should have learned it long ago. Young-blood Branford Marsalis doesn't have any trouble finding and dealing with journalistic interest and praise. It's not Henderson's fault that his time and place came 30 years late.

It should be easy. When you're asked a question just try and say what you really think. Trouble is the questions are always the same and he finds himself trying to "guide these people to ask the right intelligent questions" so that "I can find new ways to express myself. I'd like interviews to be more fun." In his innocence, God bless him, he's asking a lot. He wants intelligence where there are merely noses for news.

Words have always been important to him, he improvises music with punctuation like commas, colons and paragraphs. He admires writers who can manage long complex sentences. And now that he was being interviewed a lot, he was reading more, trying to get his "verbal juices flowing again" and so find ways to come up with new twists to be able to enjoy all the talk.

Trouble is journalists tend to line up one after another like in a barber shop and whether it be Time or Newsweek or Down Beat, they all have the same haircut.”

Joe Henderson passed away in 2001, about five years after Mike’s article about him was posted in the Sons of Miles Series.

Ben Ratliff brilliantly explained Joe’s significance to the Jazz World and what made his playing so distinctively brilliant in the following obituary which appeared in the July 2, 2001  edition of The New York Times.

Joe Henderson, one of the great jazz saxophonists and a composer who wrote a handful of tunes known by almost every jazz student, died on Saturday in San Francisco. He was 64 and lived in San Francisco.

The cause was heart failure after a long struggle with emphysema, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Henderson was unmistakably modern. ''Joe had one foot in the present, the other in the future, and he was just a step away from immortality,'' said the saxophonist Benny Golson. His tenor saxophone sound was shaded, insinuating, full of layers, with quicksilver lines amid careful ballad phrases and short trills. He had a clean, expressive upper register and a talent for improvising in semi-abstract harmony, and when the far-out years for jazz arrived in the mid-60's, led by musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, he was well positioned to take part. He made a series of records for Milestone that used studio echo, Alice Coltrane's harp, violins, wood flutes and other exotic accouterments.

But Mr. Henderson's greatest strengths were more traditional: the ballad, the uptempo tune, the standard. And by the early 1990's, when he was a respected elder, he made some of his greatest statements on a series of well-produced, nearly theatrical albums for Verve Records.

Born in Lima, Ohio, he was one of 15 siblings. His parents and his brother James encouraged him to study music because of the talents he displayed as a saxophonist in his high school band. He attended Kentucky State College for a year, then transferred to Wayne State University in Detroit, where he was among fellow students like Yusef Lateef, Curtis Fuller and Hugh Lawson. In Detroit he worked with the saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and eventually formed his own group before joining the Army in 1960. He played in the Army band at Fort Benning, Ga., and toured military bases in the Far East and Europe with a revue called the Rolling Along Show.

In 1962 Mr. Henderson, who soon became a distinctive presence with his rail-thin body, thick black glasses and bushy mustache, was discharged and headed for New York. He quickly joined the young musicians recording for Blue Note records, especially the trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who was acting as a talent scout for the label. He made his recording debut in 1963 on Dorham's ''Una Mas,'' one of the classic Blue Note records of the early 60's.

Mr. Henderson was entering jazz at a fertile moment, when a few ambitious, challenging albums, like John Coltrane's ''My Favorite Things'' and Miles Davis's ''Kind of Blue,'' had broken through to a wide audience. A new self-possessed intellectualism was widespread in black music, and the experimental and traditional factions hadn't yet hardened their positions. Within the same four-month stretch as a Blue Note session regular, Mr. Henderson found himself playing solos on Lee Morgan's ''Sidewinder,'' an album full of bluesy, hard-bop tunes, and Andrew Hill's album ''Point of Departure,'' with its opaque, knotted harmonies and rhythmic convolutions.
He played more roadhouse riffs on Morgan's record, more abstract thematic improvisations on Mr. Hill's, and sounded perfectly natural in both contexts.

After making five albums with Dorham, Mr. Henderson replaced Junior Cook in Horace Silver's band from 1964 to 1966. Again he was on hand for a milestone album, ''Song for My Father.'' He was also a member of Herbie Hancock's band from 1969 to 1970.

During the 60's he made several first-rate albums under his own name, including ''Page One'' and ''Inner Urge,'' and wrote tunes -- among them the blues pieces ''Isotope'' and ''A Shade of Jade,'' the waltz ''Black Narcissus,'' the bossa nova ''Recordame'' and the harmonically complex ''Inner Urge'' -- that earned lasting underground reputations as premium modern-jazz improvisational vehicles.

Mr. Henderson briefly joined the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1971, and his albums for Milestone, where he recorded until 1976, started to change from mystical Coltrane-inspired sessions to grooves and near jazz-rock. By the end of the 70's, he was working with the pianist Chick Corea. Then, after a five-year silence, he came back with the two volumes of ''The State of the Tenor.'' The first of his moves to redefine his career, these excellent mainstream jazz sets were recorded live at the Village Vanguard.

In the early 1990's he signed a new contract with Verve, which led to three Grammys. ''Lush Life,'' from 1991, used Billy Strayhorn tunes. With its first-rate playing and narrative arc - it began with a duet, expanded to a quintet and ended with a saxophone solo - it has sold nearly 90,000 copies, reports Soundscan, a company that tracks album sales.

Other songbook albums, only slightly less successful, included ''So Near, So Far (Musings for Miles),'' a treatment of pieces associated with Miles Davis; ''Double Rainbow,'' an album of Antonio Carlos Jobim's music; and Gershwin's ''Porgy and Bess,'' recorded with an all-star jazz lineup as well as the pop singers Sting and Chaka Khan. His 90's discography also included ''Joe Henderson Big Band,'' a lavish rendering of his compositions.”

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