There’s a legend walking among us, and his name is Eddie Henderson.
Jazz aficionados will be familiar with Henderson and his associations with iconic artists, most notably Herbie Hancock throughout the 1970s. Known as “The Funk Surgeon,” Henderson also led a number of groups that played electric jazz and fusion – although the man eschews the kind of sub-categorizations to which jazz is prone; he prefers to think of it all under the umbrella of “ethnic improvised music.”
As impressive as Henderson’s playing is his seemingly endless supply of mind-boggling life stories. He grew up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance with a mother who danced at the Cotton Club and a father who sang in The Charioteers. He took his first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong. He claims the title of the first African-American to compete in national figure skating championships. What else? He was also a practicing medical doctor throughout his early years of playing and touring with jazz greats.
During a recent visit to DePauw University, 21CM director Mark Rabideau got the chance to sit down with Eddie Henderson and hear some of his stories first-hand.
On Eddie Henderson’s first trumpet lesson with Louis Armstrong…
My mother’s friends Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan – I think they both took me to the Apollo Theater to hear Louis Armstrong. I really hadn’t heard of him. I do remember I could see [him] behind the curtain warming up. I thought, “Wow! He really has a big sound!”
So my mother took me backstage. That was my first lesson on the trumpet, on Louis Armstrong’s horn and his mouthpiece. He taught me how to make a sound.
My uncle Louie gave me his trumpet. I took lessons every week and studied very hard. After about a year I could play “Flight of the Bumblebee.” So my mother took me back to see Louis Armstrong. I remember his voice. He said, “Hey little Eddie, you still playing?” I grabbed his horn and played “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Louis Armstrong shrieked and fell out of his chair. He got up and said, “Hey little Eddie, that’s some of the baddest stuff I ever heard in my life!” Meaning good – I hope.
He told his wife to bring a book of ten of his solos transcribed. He wrote at the top, “To little Eddie, this is to warm your chops up. You sound wonderful, keep playing. Love, Satchmo.”
On a profound, early experience with Herbie Hancock…
After I finished medical school, I did my internship. The other doctors were going into specializations where you had four more years of being on call every other night. I was still playing every night. I came across psychiatry, which had an on-call schedule of one day every 45 days. So I picked psychiatry.
I did two years of that. In my last year – it was a three-year residency – Herbie Hancock, who I knew, came through San Francisco. He needed a trumpet player for a week. Somebody recommended me. He said, “Oh no, he’s a doctor.” They said, “Well, just give him a try.” That one week opened the door for me. All the musicians that I revered figured, well, Eddie plays with Herbie. His credentials must be in order. People like Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson. They all started hiring me by virtue of the fact that I was affiliated with Herbie Hancock. So that changed my whole life. I went with Herbie – it was supposed to be one week. It turned into three and a half years.
I moved back to San Francisco and got a job at this doctor’s office. He gave me the option that I could work five days a week, four hours a day. If I got tours, I could go. He still paid me even though I wasn’t there. I had my cake and ate it. I was playing every night and practicing medicine four or five hours a day. I did that for 11 or 12 years.
On emulating your heroes and finding your own voice…
[Finding my voice] was a slow process. When I first met Miles Davis, I asked, “How do you play?” I had been imitating his solos. I asked him to listen to me. I put on his record and played with it. He said, “You sound good, but that’s me.” So, it’s fine to have influences. That’s the way he learned. But then you reach a point in life where you realize, who am I?
The next time Miles came to town, he said, “Hey Eddie, you still trying to sound like me?” But in the interim, I found out that his hero, who he imitated when he was just beginning, was a gentleman named Freddie Webster. Miles’s sound, style, conception, everything, was a sad carbon copy. So when [Davis] asked me [that], I said, “You mean Freddie Webster?”
The look on Miles Davis’s face was shock. He said, “Oh man, I didn’t know you was hip to that.” Then he smiled and said, “Everybody’s a thief. I just made a short-term loan.”
Everybody is a derivative of their predecessors. It’s so important to study the past before you can think about forging ahead. It’s a cumulative process. It’s a lineage.
On being a bandleader…
In the five years I played with Herbie [Hancock], he never told anybody how to play. If you have to tell them how to play, why hire them? If you hire race horses, let them run. That’s what I took away from my greatest experience, and the lesson given to me about going on in my future career. If you hire people, let them be themselves. Evolve together. It’s a collective effort when people play together. One person dictating – that limits it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.