Obituary: Joe Henderson

A giant of the jazz saxophone, his modesty stood in contrast to his melodic improvisation

For all that he won Grammy awards, played saxophone with Bill Clinton at his first presidential inauguration, acquired elder statesman jazz status during the 1990s and was the very quintessence of a musician's musician, Joe Henderson, who has died of heart failure aged 64, always inhabited a concert stage as if he had no business being there.

When his partners were playing and he was taking time out, he would look, for all the world, like a restlessly preoccupied man at a bus stop. Yet, despite the machinations of his impenetrably devious reserve, and the competition of an avalanche of brilliant postbop practitioners on his instrument - from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane to Michael Brecker and James Carter - he was one of the greatest saxophone improvisors in the period from the 1960s to the present. Often discussed as a plausible heir apparent to Sonny Rollins, it is a sad surprise that the younger man should be the one to leave the stage first.

The musical impact of Ohio-born Henderson was all the more remarkable for his dislike of grandstanding, egotism or bravura. He fastidiously avoided the crowd-baiting hot lick, and had his own imperturbable perception of musical dynamics, rarely deviating from a steady, methodical mid-range purr, the very limitations of which made his remarkable harmonic and melodic imagination all the more audible.

Though he liked the middle register, which he occupied in a kind of penetrating murmur, he had a high-register sound as pure as a flute. He favoured fast, incisive statements of densely-packed runs, often ending in brusquely dissonant squalls or prolonged warbles, as if he were gargling with pebbles. Much of the vividness of his improvising stemmed from manipulations of tonal contrasts and phrase-density, and a composer-like juggling with fragmentary phrases and motifs, but on the fly. On top of it all, his ability to avoid repeating favourite phrases of his own - or anybody else's - could be little short of uncanny.

After the uplift of interest in straightahead jazz during the 1990s, Henderson's audiences were a lot bigger than the handful who used to show up at Ronnie Scott's club 20 years before, when he was already a jaw-dropping executant of sharp curves and four-wheel skids as a melodic improvisor, but mostly playing straight jazz rather than the then commercially dominant idiom of jazz-funk. But for those present, Henderson was obviously a whirlwind force on the rise - not only for his imagination, but for his openness to the contributions of the local musicians he worked with on those solo travels in Europe, particularly the innovative British drummer Tony Oxley.

Rollins and Charlie Parker were always clearly among Henderson's primary influences, but he had also absorbed the work of those equally wayward individualists, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. A broad-minded and erudite musician, who explored classical, Indian and Balinese music - as well as jazz - he would later say that he heard Monk the way he heard Paul Hindemith. The subsequent 1990s movement toward classical pianists beginning to record Monk tunes as high points of 20th-century music came as no surprise to him.

Henderson studied music at Kentucky State College from 1956, and at Wayne State University, Detroit, where one of his fellow students was the multi-reed player Yusef Lateef. He briefly worked with Sonny Stitt and led his own band before military service, which ended in 1962. Then he joined the bands of trumpeter Kenny Dorham and pianist Horace Silver, eventually co-leading a hard bop group called the Jazz Communicators, with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. After that, he worked with Herbie Hancock in the pianist's harmonically adventurous, if commercially obscure, sextet of 1969-70, and with the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat And Tears. He toyed with jazz-rock fusion, but it was not especially memorably.

Though Henderson would recall that some of his earliest sax-playing experiences had been for dances around Detroit, and that his first experience of hearing Charlie Parker live was also to witness dancers gyrating to fast bop improvisations on Indiana and Cherokee, the dance versions of jazz music that came from rhythm 'n' blues, rather than swing roots, struck him as more repetitive, and harder to improvise inventively with.

Impatient with the narrowing opportunities for uncompromising jazz improvisors during the 1970s, he moved to San Francisco, and became active in music education. He also worked with Freddie Hubbard and others in a group variously known as Echoes Of An Era, and the Griffith Park Band.

Henderson appeared on 34 Blue Note albums between 1963 and 1990, alongside some of the most creative musicians in American jazz - including McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Chick Corea, Ron Carter and Al Foster. But 1985 was re-emergence year for this often overlooked artist. He played with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams at the televised concert, One Night With Blue Note (the relaunch of the famous Blue Note label), and also recorded the adventurous double-set, The State Of The Tenor, alongside Carter and Foster. A series of thematic recording opportunities followed when he changed to Verve Records - including the lyrical Lush Life (devoted to Billy Strayhorn), and 1992's So Near, So Far (Musings For Miles), a tribute to the recently-departed Miles Davis by a supergroup that included former Miles sidemen John Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster.

Henderson loved improvising; taking a musical chance was his reason for artistic existence. He once remarked, in an interview in the Guardian, on how invaluable a quality adaptability was. "If, in a musical situation, you've got to do all that talking, and explaining . . . jeez, man, it can just go on and on. But you get a certain group of people, you just have to count the tune in, or call the tune, or sometimes not even that, just start playing . . . and everything that's supposed to fall in place does just that. I was at a rehearsal with Miles once that was like that; he just walked around with a can of beer, talking in that barely audible voice, didn't hand out any parts.

"But then it dawned on you, same as it was with Monk. If he had you there, that underscored how he felt about you, that was the confidence that he had. When mother's not there, telling you what to do, it's sink or swim. But once somebody tells you, convincingly enough, that this is now your style - that's all you need to know."

Joe Henderson, saxophonist, born April 24 1937; died June 29 2001


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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