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Rick Henderson: 1928-2004
Rick Henderson
alto saxophone

Born: 1928 in Washington, DC
Died: May 21, 2004 in Washington, DC

Washington, D.C. saxophonist, Ellington alumnus

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins

Altoman and composer Rick Henderson, an alumnus of the Duke Ellington band and longtime fixture on the Washington, D.C. jazz scene, died of arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease on May 21, 2004. He was 76 years old and left no immediate survivors.

A D.C. native, Henderson was raised by his single mother and received his first alto saxophone while in middle school. At Armstrong High School he played for school dances in a septet. He graduated from Armstrong in 1946 and started gigging with local jazz bands. His initial influences were Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, but as Charlie Parker began to work out the innovations of bebop, Henderson's alto playing took on a definite Bird influence as well. His distinctive tone and impressive abilities caught the ears of visiting musicians, among them trumpeter Clark Terry.

In 1951 Henderson entered the U.S. Army. Two years later, following his discharge, he was recommended to Ellington by Terry. Filling the giant footprints of his predecessors, Hodges and Willie Smith, would be no easy task, especially for someone who was drawing more from the bebop vocabulary than any Ducal saxophonist ever had. But for five years he held his own in the sax section in the distinguished company of Russell Procope, Harry Carney, Jimmy Hamilton and Paul Gonsalves.

Henderson appeared on the sessions that Ellington recorded for Capitol Records, and occasionally composed and arranged material for the band. As he related to W. Royal Stokes (in the book The Jazz Scene), "One night before a recording session, Duke casually dropped by my hotel room at 2 a.m. with some music for me to write by 10 o'clock the next morning. I was half asleep and I promised I would do it, but when I realized what I was talking about -- Duke going out and having a ball and I was getting up at 2 o'clock and write all night long and then go on and record -- I got up out of the bed and went and found Duke and gave him the music back. And he laughed 'cause he realized I realized what he was doing -- he was planning on having a ball. So I went back and got me some sleep."

When Duke's Capitol contract ended in 1956, the bandleader decided to reinvent his sound. Prior to his triumphant appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival that year, Ellington let go a number of members of the band. Rick Henderson was among the unfortunates. He returned home to Washington and began leading the house band at the Howard Theatre, part of the American "chitlin circuit" for black musicians. From 1956 to 1964 Henderson led bands of frequently shifting personnel through four shows a day.

After quitting the Howard, Henderson became more active as a composer and arranger for jazz bands, school groups and military orchestras. He wrote charts for the likes of Ellington, Basie, Billy Taylor, Illinois Jacquet and other top jazzmen through the 1990s, while continuing to lead his own groups. Taylor was especially impressed by Henderson's ability to capture the "Ellington sound" in his charts. In the late 70s he conducted the jazz ensemble at the University of Maryland, gigged with Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, and founded his own music publishing house, Federal City.

(Thanks to W. Royal Stokes for his contributions.)

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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