A forgotten name in jazz history but a potentially significant voice in the mid-1950s, Ernie Henry (1926-1957) was a fine alto saxophonist who had his own sound, coming out of the Charlie Parker tradition.
Henry started on violin when he was eight but switched to alto four years later. He matured during the bebop era and was discovered by Tadd Dameron, who hired him for his band in 1947. After that group broke up, Henry had opportunities to play with many of the giants of the era including Fats Navarro, Charlie Ventura, Georgie Auld, Kenny Dorham, Max Roach, and the Dizzy Gillespie big band (1948-1949). He toured with Illinois Jacquet during 1950-1952 and, after a few years off the scene, returned in 1956. In what would be his last two years before drugs led to his premature death, Ernie Henry recorded on Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners album, worked with Charles Mingus, and toured with the new Dizzy Gillespie big band.
During his final 16 months, Ernie Henry led three albums for Riverside. Presenting Ernie Henry, a quintet date with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and pianist Kenny Drew, has five of Henry’s obscure originals plus fine versions of “Gone with the Wind” and “I Should Care.” Last Chorus, which was released posthumously, has an alternate take apiece from the other two projects but mostly features Henry in a hard bop octet with trumpeter Lee Morgan and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson. Seven Standards and a Blues, recorded just three months before Henry’s death, is the altoist’s best showcase since he is the only horn in a quartet with pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Ernie Henry could have done so much more, but at least his three Riverside sets and his sideman projects form a strong musical legacy.