“Henderson is a part of an historical process that’s extremely important in American music—the process of improvisation. This is where the real American classical music is.... When Henderson launches into one of his many lengthy improvisations—each one is almost like a jewel, polished and multidimensional—you can hear the tenor as it came down through the years. And through that tenor, you can hear all the changes improvised music has gone through in America in more than four decades” (Eugene Chadbourne, Calgary Herald).
The tenor saxophone is one of the most popular instruments in America today, and as noted above, the tradition is long and widely varied. Joe Henderson was one of the most adept tenorists, a master of the instrument.
Joe grew up in Lima, Ohio, and, as he says: “It’s kind of hard to even think of myself as not ever having been associated with the music. It was around me ever since I could hear.” His older brother, an engineer and avid record collector, introduced Joe to Prez, Dexter Gordon, and Jazz at the Philharmonic. And Joe listened to B.B. King and Bo Diddley and Eric Dixon too.
In the late Fifties Joe Henderson went to Detroit to study music at Wayne State University. Detroit fans and musicians regard him as one of their own, for he was an important part of the movement that made the Motor City a major jazz center during that period.
As is often the case, it was his fellow musicians who first appreciated and encouraged Henderson’s talents. When he made the inevitable move to New York, he was already a professional musician, fully versed in harmony, theory, and composition. Henderson gained two years of extremely valuable experience as part of the celebrated Horace Silver Quintet. During this time, he became virtually the only composer to have his material recorded by Silver—whose albums over the years have usually contained only his own compositions.
Henderson was co-leader, with Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes, of the Jazz Communicators. During 1969 and 1970 Joe was a featured member of the Herbie Hancock Sextet.
In the mid-Sixties, Joe worked on a date with Lee Morgan which produced an album called The Sidewinder. The title track, a blues number, quickly became a hit and made the leader a lot of money. As Joe said: “It was Lee’s album but we had an extra taste. ... I didn’t mind doing that sort of thing on someone else’s session—I had an immense respect for Lee Morgan, loved him as a person, a warm, gentle man, but on my own session I tend to gravitate towards something more musical. Sidewinder and things in that musical zone aren’t challenging for me because I grew up with it. Like you don’t have to tell your heart to beat, it just beats!”
By 1970 Joe Henderson succumbed to the tremendous urge to assemble his own group. They played a bit in New York, and did an extensive West Coast tour. The next year they played all over the U.S. and Canada.
After an abortive four months with Blood, Sweat & Tears (when he was soundly blasted by “jazz” lovers for “selling out”), Joe set out on his own again.
Henderson, a Milestone artist for eight years, recorded live at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA, and in Japan. He released ten brilliant studio albums, including a collaboration with Alice Coltrane (called The Elements), and Black Miracle, which is sparked by arrangements from Joe and George Duke and exciting performances from Ron Carter, Harvey Mason, and Lee Ritenour.
Joe Henderson died on June 30, 2001.