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Fletcher Henderson 1923-24

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Album Review

Coleman Hawkins once said that Fletcher Henderson's band came across better when heard live than replayed off of old records. Hawkins insisted that Henderson's recordings sounded "like cats and dogs fighting." But this was Hawkins in 1956, consistently in denial about his age and the primal nature of the early sides he'd helped to wax more than thirty years earlier. Safely removed from personal responsibility or temporal proximity to the artifacts in question, the rest of us might be able to enjoy these rickety old sides for what they are: evidence of experimentation in a new musical genre, utilizing what was at the time relatively new technology. There's no question about it: these guys probably sounded a lot looser and hotter in a nightclub than they ever could have while trapped together in the stuffy little rooms designated as recording studios. Here's where a passion for the medium itself comes in handy. Today we can get our kicks from listening to old records because the records themselves are old and we like them that way. We can also enjoy hearing what Coleman Hawkins did with tenor or even bass saxophone behind a raggedy-sounding spasm band working up no less than three versions of "Dicty Blues" with its patented "descending chimes" lick, so specific to the early 1920s. Fats Waller, in fact, used a similar device on his player piano roll, "Your Time Now," also issued in 1923. Today we can marvel at the names of those old time record labels: Ajax, Puritan, Paramount, Vocalion and Pathe Actuelle. Or those four Edison recordings from November 1923 and April 1924 (making the title of this CD a misnomer), each containing more than four minutes' worth of vintage music, offering a full extra minute of entertainment per side. Here, Henderson's group sounds less like a jazz band, closer to a society dance orchestra. It was a calculated attempt to appeal to wider (whiter?) audiences. Most jazz musicians throughout several generations have made similar moves in order to succeed. It's a fact of life, yet jazz critics have always bitched about "commercialism" while ignoring both economic necessity and artistic liberty. Regarding this particular bundle of early Fletcher Henderson performances: they all fit into a larger panorama made up of every jazz record ever made, pressed, purchased, played and heard since the very beginnings of the tradition. None of these Henderson sides are irrelevant. Don Redman is on all but two of them. Americans and people all over the world listened to them in 1923 and have been listening ever since. A French label called Classics thought enough of them to restore and reissue them on this remarkable chronological series. You should probably immerse yourself in this music. Don't be shy. It's just a parcel of dance tunes embellished with hot solos.


Born: December 18, 1897 in Cuthbert, GA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s

Fletcher Henderson was very important to early jazz as leader of the first great jazz big band, as an arranger and composer in the 1930s, and as a masterful talent scout. Between 1923-1939, quite an all-star cast of top young black jazz musicians passed through his orchestra, including trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier, Rex Stewart, Bobby Stark, Cootie Williams, Red Allen, and Roy Eldridge; trombonists Charlie Green, Benny Morton, Jimmy Harrison, Sandy Williams, J.C. Higginbottham,...
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